Metro-East Living

Balsam seeds are a challenge to find

Balsam plants, also know as balsam pears or bitter melon, originated in China. Their seeds are hard to find.
Balsam plants, also know as balsam pears or bitter melon, originated in China. Their seeds are hard to find.

Q: Can you help me find balsam seeds? As a kid, my mom and dad grew balsam. Once it ripened and was a bright yellow color, the balsam was opened up and the bright reds seeds removed. The flesh was removed and placed in a jar of whiskey. I remember my dad drinking the whiskey if he had a cold. The flesh was used as a first aid cure-all. If you got a cut, you wrapped a piece of the balsam flesh on the sore. I’ve looked in seed catalogs and on the internet, but I have not been able to locate any balsam seeds. Thanks for your help.

D.B. of Belleville

A: The plant you are describing is Momordica charantia, commonly known as balsam pear or bitter melon. It is a member of the Cucurbitacea plant family and the plant grows as a vine and can grow to 10 feet or more. The first word of the scientific name indicates that the clean seed appears to have been eaten (after the red pulp has been removed). This plant is a native of China and you also can locate it under the Chinese name la-kwa. The odd seeds cause this plant to be also called the ‘art pumpkin.’

Thomas Jefferson knew of this plant. Occasionally, the gardens of Monticello (in Charlottesville, Va.) have balsam seeds for sale, but not on a regular basis because they tend to sell out quickly when they do have them in spring.

The name balsam is the problem because there is a common annual flowering plant called balsam as well. There is also a balsam fir which is an evergreen tree.

The pulp surrounding the seeds which you described contains large amounts of quinine which was used to treat malaria. The pulp also contains twice the amount of beta carotene which is found in broccoli, twice the amount of potassium of a banana, twice the amount of calcium of spinach as well as a large amount of phosphorus. It also contains large amounts of vitamins C and B.

You will have to be careful to get the right one that produces the yellow pod. A lot of Chinese varieties produce green or white fruit. There are even hybrid varieties of the bitter melon. Most of these are grown for certain flavors the same way that we grow different flavored tomatoes. I do not recommend buying these unless you know that they are producing the yellow fruit.

There is a great website — Bonnieplants.com — that gives the full cultural directions for growing the balsam pear seeds, but does not sell any of these seeds.

Q: We are getting a lot of new trees sprouting on our property. Should we let them grow or cut them down?

L. M. of Caseyville

A: First, identify what kind of trees are sprouting. Silver maples, cottonwoods and elms could become problem trees later on because they have soft wood and can be harmed in high wind and become hazard trees. They should be eliminated as soon as you notice them. Hand pruners easily can do the job.

Check other trees to make sure that they will not become problems in the future. Make sure they have enough room for their mature size and are not too close to structures on the property.

If you have oak trees sprouting, you may want to move them to a better location. Make sure that they will not grow into electric lines.

Charles Giedeman is a local contributing writer. Send your gardening questions to Lifestyle Editor Maureen Houston, Belleville News-Democrat, P.O. Box 427, 120 S. Illinois St., Belleville, IL 62222-0427, or email them to mhouston@bnd.com.

Do this now:

Plant perennials such as oriental poppies, peonies, iris, bleeding hearts, sweet William, Canterbury bells, and delphinium.

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