The ripe and unripe fruits of Momordica balsamina (aka balsam pear) are photographed alongside each other for today’s image. Not only am I a big fan of the vibrancy and contrast in this picture, but the seemingly too-perfect appearance of the stinkbug–as if it were placed there–adds more life to the image.
Popular for its fruits, this creeping vine is also known by other names, including balsam apple, bitter cucumber, bitter melon, and bitter gourd. To me, the latter name is accurately invoked by the warty surface of the outer rind. Balsam pear is a member of the Cucurbitaceae (gourd family). Both the outer rind and seeds are poisonous and clearly bitter in taste. As you can imagine from the photograph, the fruits of balsam pear gradually dehisce as they ripen (revealing the seeds), with all segments completely reflexed by the end of the summer. Another photo by 3Point141 offers a view of the fully-dehisced fruit starting to decay.
Unlike the fruit or rind, the red flesh surrounding the seeds is edible. The Flora of Pakistan notes that the arils can be eaten pickled or as vegetables, or they can be used to flavour dishes. Additionally, the leaves and stem apparently find use as feed for camels.
Momordica balsamina has a range spanning the tropical and subtropical parts of Africa, Asia, and Australia. It also occurs as a weed in parts of the USA, the Caribbean, and South America. The native range mirrors that of the entire genus of 60 or so species, many of which have similar fruiting structures. Part of Momordica balsamina‘s popularity in North America as a garden ornamental is due to the association with Thomas Jefferson, who planted it in his garden at Monticello. There seems to be some uncertainty around the origin of the genus name and specific epithet, but PlantZAfrica offers their take on the origins of the names as well as including a rich description of the various medicinal uses associated with balsam pear.
The BPotD Flickr Pool has several other images of Momordica balsamina, including additional pictures of fruits and photographs of the flowers, deeply-cut leaves, and tendrils. Being monoecious, it bears male and female flowers on the same plant. These flowers are easily distinguishable by colour, though, with male flowers white and female flowers yellow.