Forgotten herb: balsam apple

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A funny thing happened on the way to the drug store…ah, this is so me. We were on vacation in the Florida Keys, and I took a short walk across the street to pick up a few things at the drug store. I stopped to admire a pretty bush with silvery leaves, and something bright caught my eye. A neon orange, spikey fruit called the balsam apple dangling from a vine. I had to know more.

Bright orange balsam apple hanging from vine. Poisonous

When I came back from my walk, I searched the web for more info. Then, I went back to the bush and collected samples of the vine, fruits and seeds. You don’t think the drugstore would mind that I borrowed their weeds, do you? I had so many questions. What are the uses? Is it native to the US? How did it get there? Is it historic?

The scientific name is Momordica balsamina. That is only important if you feel compelled to buy seeds. It’s not an apple, and you don’t make balsamic vinegar from it. If you grew up in Asia or Africa, you might know this herb or one of its close cousins, like the bitter melon. It is used as a herb or a vegetable in some Asian and African nations, but balsam apple is pretty much unknown in the US.

It is historic though, even in the US. Thomas Jefferson grew balsam apples at his experimental garden at Monticello. I’ve read a few books about that garden. In addition to eating the leaves and unripened pods, our ancestors used balsam apple to treat wounds. Sadly, most of the knowledge about how to use it to treat wounds has been lost to time. The former president was a big fan of flowering vines, but the plant is not native to the US. It is believed to have originated in Africa.

Little yellow flowers of balsam apple

Unique look

Balsam apples are so ugly, they’re beautiful. The vine is long and straggly. The balsam apples themselves begin life as adorable little yellow flowers, which become lumpy, warty green fruits. If left to ripen, the green fruits turn neon orange and squishy. When they open, there are three rows of sticky, wax-covered red seeds inside. You can see some of the sticky wax on my fingers in this photo.

red wax covered seeds of the balsam apple

How to use a balsam apple

Young, green fruits and leaves can been eaten raw, stewed or fried. While I wouldn’t recommend eating random vines you find growing on the side of parking lots, I did taste the leaves. They’re bitter. Really bitter. Even though I enjoy strong flavors, I am not so sure about eating any quantity of balsam apple raw. And there are some warnings

Do not ever eat the seeds or the ripe, orange fruit. It is poisonous and can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Avoid ingesting balsam apple if you are pregnant, for fear of causing miscarriage. That really freaks me out. I would avoid balsam apples and bitter melons entirely if I were pregnant or planning to be pregnant.

Ashley at My Heart Beets wrote a funny post and recipe for the cousin of the balsam apple (even though she refers to bitter melon as balsam apple, it isn’t, but they’re close). She compares the flavor of bitter melon to a potent beer.

However, this recipe for Cassava root and balsam apple sounds pretty intriguing. Here, the leaves are used as an herb to flavor the dish than as the bitter, pungent star of the meal.

balsam apple pods in my hands

Should I sell balsam apple at my farm stand?

Referring back to the whole concept of farmstand culture, if you have a farm stand that serves people from Africa or Asia, especially India, China, Mozambique, Nepal, or Vietnam, you might consider growing balsam apple or bitter melon. Start asking your neighbors if they would be interested in this mostly forgotten herb.

When they’re in stock, you can snag a pack of seeds here. Once you grow the balsam apple vine, you should be able to harvest plenty of seeds for future plantings and never need to buy seeds again.

Considering its strongly bitter flavor, balsam apple would be a tough sell to people who did not grow up with the herb, like most Americans. It will attract a ton of attention, but you’ll have to do a ton of educating. You could try one of my recommendations to increase your farm stand income and pair a small pint of green balsam apples with a recipe. Your patrons will need more information and ideas.

Remember, once ripe, the orange balsam apples are dangerous and should never be sold. If you don’t harvest them when they are very young and green, do not sell the fruit to your farm stand patrons. I would include a warning about the risk of miscarriage, which is likely a big buzz kill for your farm stand customers.

The plant is pretty prolific. You should get a lot of unripe, green balsam apples from each vine, and, but be careful, as the residents of South Florida have discovered, the plant can become a bit invasive. It’s not hard to weed out; it’s a pretty simple vine. I’d say, oh I don’t know, chives are a much bigger problem if they go to seed.

An introduction to balsam apples, a cousin of bitter melon, that grows wild in warm, tropical climates. Balsam apples were popular...so popular a US President grew them in his garden...but are now mostly forgotten.

Future of balsam apples

Once a featured conversation-starter in a president’s garden, balsam apples now grow in complete anonymity in the bushes along the drugstore parking lot. It is a rare and fascinating herb. One that deserves more study. What properties made it so attractive to our ancestors to use to treat wounds? The true benefits and risks of balsam apple vines remain mostly a mystery.

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Balsam apple opening sticky red seeds

44 thoughts on “Forgotten herb: balsam apple

  1. I grew bitter gourd/melon this year and have several times before in years past. Even with proper preparation they are a little too bitter for my taste. This year I made Indian style pickle with them. The strong spice flavors helps mask the bitterness.

    1. Greg – you’re awesome! That’s fantastic experience and a great suggestion. What zone are you in? I’m wondering how well balsam apple grows in different zones.

  2. I’m in zone 7b. The possible low temperatures are in the 5ºF to 10ºF range. The lowest I’ve seen since living here the last 33 years was 8ºF this last winter. The last frost in spring is typically around Easter and the first killing frost is in the first week in November. Plenty of growing time for bitter gourd.

  3. So they’re like eating a puffer fish, only eat here, here, here and here! Lol! Sorry I couldn’t resist!

    1. Ha! I had the same thought. But then again, there’s a lot of stuff in our homes and yards that could be dangerous – cleaning products, alcohol, castor oil, holly, magnolia, poinsettia. That’s just a quick list off the toi of my head.

  4. How interesting! I have never in my life seen or heard of these before! I think they would be good to grow just so that we don’t lose them to the more popular herbs and plants offered. Great post.

      1. Well my story about it is very interesting and memorable. My aunt just reminded me last evening when I shared this story with her that I was always the “good child”. I took all the medicine given to me by my eldets😂. She was not very find of the medicinal foods we were given to eat and would oftentimes put her portion on my plate. I would eat it without question. I loved my granny’s cooking. We call this Carili or as you say bitter melon or bitter gourd. My granny’s food was par excellent

      2. That’s wonderful. Great to maintain lifestyle changes like that and over a decade, impressive!

    1. Could be. In some countries, they’re common. In others, scary. Either way, I figured it was better to have more awareness about than less.

  5. This looked and sounded very much like a vegetable we use in India, the bitter gourd. On looking it up, I find it is a close relative, monordica charantia. Best eaten with the hell fried out of it!

  6. I am Indian so I am familiar with the cousin of Balsam Apple. In Punjab we call it Kerala. I have 2 recipes that my grandmother and mother used to make. One is with small tender ones that are stuffed and pan roasted. They are de-seeded and salted first to remove the bitterness. The other is with the skins of either small or large ones. Again, the skins are salted to remove the bitterness. They are then washed, dried and cooked with a spicy onion mixture. I love them. I can usually buy them in the Indian market when they are in season. I will make them and post the recipe when I get them next.

  7. I’ve heard of bitter melon (and cooked a good stir fry with it), but not the balsam apple. So fascinating! I know bitter melon is packed with vitamin A, C and B-6. From what I can find, balsam apple has some of the same things, perhaps less.

    Meno<3

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your research and experience with this interesting but almost forgotten herb.

      1. Honestly I’m fascinated by the way Asian fruits and vegetables pack such a nutritional wallop, so to speak. It’s no wonder they’re more healthy compared to us (Americans). When I started reading nutrition labels, trying to find the best stuff to eat for my health I was constantly dismayed by just how small the content, especially of Vitamin A in some of the veggies that I cook and enjoy most. I almost felt like if I wanted to seriously even get close to the recommendations I’d have to eat spinach everyday. Don’t get me wrong, I love spinach, but I don’t intend to eat it everyday.

      2. Oh I really get it! Did you happen to catch my farmstand5 post about a Chinese farmers market? Mostly fruits and nuts. Awesome stuff. I guess even with the strides American organic grocers have made, we are still pretty beholden to the high-yield commercial crops. Sad, really. Our ancestors would think we were produce-poor. It’s my whole inspiration for creating this blog. To undo a little bit of that forgetfulness.

      3. I’m so glad! I felt the same way. What a shame we don’t have more variety in our fruits like that, but it’s a self-perpetuating cycle…don’t have them, don’t learn about them, don’t try them, don’t have them.

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