The Spiny Bittergourd (Momordica cochinchinensis)

The spiny bittergourd an exotic fruit in Singapore and I have not seen it on sale locally. Botanically known as Momordica cochinchinensis, the spiny bittergourd is a relative of the common bittergourd (Momordica charantia) but its fruits are totally unlike the latter in terms of appearance and use. The spiny bittergourd is oval in shape and has short spines all over the rind of the fruit. The fruit is usually used only when it is ripe and that is when its rind turns into a bright orange colour.

A ripening spiny bittergourd showing a hint of orange.

The size of the fruit of the spiny bittergourd seems to vary depending on the cultivar. The variety I grew (shown in the picture above) some time back from seeds obtained from the World Vegetable Center produced fruits that were about 10 cm in length. On the other hand, the fruit brought back from Vietnam by one of my Green Culture Singapore discussion forum member, Karen, was much, much larger. The length of the fruit probably measured about 35 cm as shown below (picture courtesy of Karen)!

A mature spiny bittergourd (a bamboo skewer is put alongside for scale).

This fruit seems to be only popular in Vietnam where the red aril surrounding the seeds obtained from mature fruits are used to prepare a glutinous rice dish called xôi gấc that is served during the New Year and special occasions such as weddings. Outside Vietnam, the fruit is best known for its abudance of antioxidants where it is sold as a dietary supplement in the form of a drink. The spiny bittergourd is also an excellent source of carotenoids such beta-carotene which is a precursor of vitamin A. Read an interesting and informative article that I have found on the Internet that was published on the Vietnam Journal which described the use of the spiny bittergourd as a food source to alleviate vitamin A deficiency in Vietnam -http://www.vietnamjournal.org/article.php?sid=5

A mature spiny bittergourd cut open to reveal the red aril-covered seeds.

The seeds from the spiny bittergourd are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and referred to as “Semen Momordicae”. The Chinese name of these seeds is called “Mu Bie Zi” (木鳖子) which directly translates into “Wooden tortise seeds”. This strange Chinese name is not surprising once we see how the large seeds (about 4 cm in diameter) look like as they do resemble the shells of tortises.

Large, brown seeds of the spiny bittergourd after the aril them are removed.

The seeds from the spiny bittergourd are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and referred to as “Semen Momordicae”. The Chinese name of these seeds is called “Mu Bie Zi” (木鳖子) which directly translates into “Wooden tortise seeds”. This strange Chinese name is not surprising once we see how the large seeds (about 4 cm in diameter) look like as they do resemble the shells of tortises.

In TCM, the hard outer seed coat is first removed to obtain the kernel which is broken into pieces and then stir-fried. After all traces of oil are removed, the fragments are ground into a powder and stored in a cool, dry place. The powder is indicated to “promote the subsidence of nodulation and swelling, combat poisons and cure sores” and is orally consumed for the treatment of sores and inflammatory swellings, mastitis, scrofula, haemorrhoids, anal fistula, chronic eczema, neurodermatitis and scalds” (Pharmacopoeia of the People’s Republic of China Vol 1, English Edition, 1997). 

A female flower bud (note the ovary behind the petals) that had just emerged from its bag-like bract.

The spiny bittergourd plant is a perennial vine but unlike the common bittergourd, this plant is dioecious which means that male and female flowers are borne on separate plants. Hence, in order to have fruits, one has to grow several vines nearby to ensure successful pollination. The common bittergourd produces flowers of both sexes on a single plant and one can get to harvest fruits by just growing one vine.

Male flower of the spiny bittergourd.

The flowers of the spiny bittergourd vine are produced in an interesting way. During development, they are all encapsulated inside a green bag-like bract which eventually splits open in half to reveal the flower bud. Flowers produced by the plant are five-petalled and are yellow in colour with a black eye in the middle. I noticed these flowers are frequently visited by bees which are attracted by the yellow colour of the flowers.

Female flower of the spiny bittergourd.

Similar to observation observed in Vietnam, the plants I grew in my community garden started to flower around March to April until about August to September. The male flowers are smaller in size compared with the female flowers and the latter can be distinguished from the former like other curcubit flowers via the presence of a baby fruit (ovary) located behind the petals.

A young spiny bittergourd fruit. Note the numerous tubercles on the surface of the fruit. These will turn into rather stiff, hard spines when the fruit matures.

Even with the bees around, my plants required some help from me to bear fruits. I hand-pollinated them to ensure the pollen from the male flowers are transferred to the female flowers. If pollination is successful, the fruit will start to swell up after the petals of the female flowers fade away. Fruit development occurs over a very long time and the entire duration can take up to 4 to 6 months!

The swollen base of the spiny bittergourd vine. 

The spiny bittergourd plant has attractive deep green, shiny, lobed leaves and there is two grandular structures occurring at the zone where the petiole joins each leaf blade. It is a robust vigorous vine that can eventually grow to give a lush and dense canopy. With time, the stem near the soil level swells up to form a tuber.

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9 responses to “The Spiny Bittergourd (Momordica cochinchinensis)

  1. I have had a gac vine growing and flowering in my garden in Delray Beach, FL, for 2 – 3 years and was wondered why I wasn’t getting any fruit. Your web site finally gave me the answer: I have a solitary female plant.

    Do you know where I can get seeds, so I can grow her a buddy?

    Thanks,
    Laurie

  2. As far as I am concerned, the female Spiny Bittergourd vine, as strange as it might sound, can yield fruit without pollination from the male one.

  3. Hi Laurie,

    The seeds are quite hard to get. You can try ordering it from http://www.gac-seeds.com/.

    I have not ordered from them, but you can enquire by sending an email to know more.

    Wilson

  4. Hi Kadai,

    I have read before that the gac vine can still bear fruits if there is only a female vine growing.

    However, I have never observed that happening in my garden. Unpollinated flowers become aborted eventually.

    Wilson

  5. Hello where can I find seeds of Momordica cochichinensis? The spiny Bittergourd, send an email
    xpagan@terra.es

  6. Is the baby fruit a sign of successful pollination, after the petals of the female flowers fade away or do I need for the fruit to become bigger to know that the female flower pollinated? Thanks.

  7. Is the difference between the male and female flower the bulge under the petals? The male does not have the bulge, I cannot distinguish in the photo the difference between the male and female flower. Thanks

  8. Hello my name is Pedro Pagán, I an Espanish, does anyone seeds of Momordica cochinchinensis?, “Spanish for seed exchange?, I need 4 or 5 seeds.
    xpagan@terra.es

  9. Hello my name is Pedro Pagán, I an Espanish, does anyone seeds of Myrica rubra tree seeds?, in Japan is yamamomo, in chinese is yangmei, “Spanish for seed exchange?, I need 4 or 5 seeds.
    xpagan@terra.es

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