Momordica cardiospermoides Klotzsch
Common names: bitter gourd (Eng.); inshubaba (siSwati); ntwe (seTswana)
This climber has a foetid smell, but makes up for it with showy orange-yellow flowers and large, fleshy, bulging orange-red ripe fruits that will attract birds to your garden.
The bitter gourd is a herbaceous climber with a perennial tuberous rootstock, all parts foetid. The rootstock consists of several tough spindle-shaped, thickened roots covered with a yellow bark. The several stems are annual, much-branched, hairless, angular, and up to 10 m long. Leaves are short-stalked, compound, up to 120 mm long, deeply cut to the main vein, with about 10-20 leaflets; they are membranous, hairless, dark green above, and paler below. Tendrils are very thin, simple or split in two. Flowers, male and female on the same plant (monoecious), are all stalked and solitary.
Male flowers are supported by a prominent sessile bract which is 10-20 mm wide, almost semi-circular, hairless, light green, with a few distinct longitudinal veins; corolla yellow to orange with greenish, raised veins outside, a dirty green near the base inside, 15-25 mm long. Female flowers have a rather small bract (sometimes absent), and the corolla is very similar to but somewhat smaller than in male flowers.
The fruit is fleshy with a pink, gelatinous mucilage, and is more or less egg-shaped to sausage-shaped, smooth, hairless, dark green with lighter blotches when unripe, orange-red to scarlet when ripe, warty or bulging irregularly, indehiscent, 50-100 x 25-50 mm. Seeds are many, rose-red turning crimson or dark brown when ripe, each covered with whitish soft flesh, more or less ovate-elliptic in outline, much compressed with a few irregular rows of flat warts or irregularly twisting ridges, about 12 mm long, about 8 mm wide and about 4 mm thick.
Distribution and habitat
M. cardiospermoides occurs from Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Botswana down to Swaziland and South Africa where it is found in the Limpopo, North-West, Gauteng and Mpumalanga provinces and in the Ingwavuma district in northern KwaZulu-Natal.
This species grows in well-drained sandy and sandy-loam soil, among rocks on granite/gneiss outcrops, also on flat areas, along river banks and roadsides. It will grow in full sun, but prefers semi-shade among trees and shrubs. It is found in various types of woodland, savanna and wooded grassland vegetation and climbs onto all kinds of trees and shrubs, also on hedges and wire fences.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The genus name Momordica could perhaps refer to the sculptured seeds or the uneven appearance of the fruits, which look as if they have been bitten; the Latin mordeo means to bite. However, Jackson (1990) doubts this explanation. Momordica is an Old World genus of about 40 species, the majority of them in tropical Africa. They are recognised by the seeds that are almost always enveloped in reddish pulp, and by the often prominent bracts subtending the male flowers.
The species name cardiospermoides refers to the resemblance of the compound leaves to those of Cardiospermum (Sapindaceae), the heart-seed or balloon-vine, also a climber. M. cardiospermoides was formerly known as M. clematidea Sond.; once again the species name refers to the compound leaves which also resemble those of Clematis (Ranunculaceae), another climber known as the traveller's joy. M. cardiospermoides is unique in the Cucurbitaceae in southern Africa in having compound leaves.
Cucurbitaceae consists of about 120 genera and 735 species that are cosmopolitan in mostly tropical and subtropical countries. Many species are cultivated and of economic importance as food plants such as cucumber, melon, pumpkin and watermelon. Members of this family are annual or perennial herbs or shrubs (only one species is a tree). The leaves are alternate and variable, and tendrils are almost always present. The flowers are mostly unisexual and white or yellow; they occur on the same plant (monoecious) or on separate plants (dioecious). The fruit is often an indehiscent berry (soft-shelled) or gourd (hard-shelled) with one to many, often flattened seeds. There are about 18 genera and 75 species of this family in southern Africa.
M. cardiospermoides grows from about 120-1100 m above sea level in areas with an annual rainfall of about 400-1200 mm. Based on the information on specimen labels in the National Herbarium (PRE), the flowering time is from about November to April, but mainly from November to January, while the fruiting time is also from about November to April but mainly in April. Birds will certainly eat the brightly coloured and fleshy ripe fruit.
Meeuse (1959) stated that 'the first flowers, male ones, as is the rule among the monoecious Cucurbitaceae, appear in late spring or early summer. Female flowers appear on the same plant usually one or two months later'. In this same publication the famous South African botanical artist, Cythna Letty, provided a lovely colour plate showing leaves, flowers, ripe fruit and seed.
Most observers agree that M. cardiospermoides has a disagreeable smell, but a few collectors described the plant as fragrant!
In some areas the leaves of M. cardiospermoides are regarded as edible and cooked as a spinach, as stated on the label of the specimen Barnard 211 in PRE, which was collected in Mpumalanga. Another specimen in PRE, Moss BMP678, grew in a herbalist's garden in Botswana, where it was used medicinally. The fresh or dried roots were cooked and drunk for boils. Dlamini (1981) also listed M. cardiospermoides as a medicinal plant as well as a plant with edible leaves in his publication on the Swaziland flora.
Growing Momordica cardiospermum
This species is not discussed in any of the standard horticultural books on indigenous South African plants. However, its natural habitat and ecology can be used as guidelines. It can be grown from seed in mainly frost-free areas, and the young plants should be protected against drought and too much sunlight. As a climber, the stems will need some support to give a showy effect.
- Dlamini, B. 1981. Swaziland flora: their local names and uses. Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives: Forestry section, Mbabane, Swaziland.
- Jackson, W.P.U. 1990. Origins and meanings of names of South African plant genera. Ecolab, Botany Dept., University of Cape Town.
- Jeffrey, C. 1967. Cucurbitaceae. Flora of tropical East Africa : 17-40.
- Jeffrey, C. 1978. Cucurbitaceae. Flora zambesiaca 4: 419-429.
- Meeuse, A.D.J. 1959. The Flowering Plants of Africa 33: t. 1295 (as M. clematidea ).
- Meeuse, A.D.J. 1962. The Cucurbitaceae of southern Africa. Bothalia 8: 45-52.
National Herbarium, Pretoria
Plant Type: Climber
SA Distribution: Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, North West
Soil type: Sandy, Loam
Flowering season: Spring, Early Summer, Late Summer
Flower colour: Yellow, Orange
Aspect: Full Sun, Morning Sun (Semi Shade), Afternoon Sun (Semi Shade)
Gardening skill: Average