Balsampear, balasm pear, wild balsam apple, bitter melon, bitter gourd, and bitter squash are some of the common names for Momordica charantia, an invasive pest plant that hails from the Old World tropics. After the Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004, this vine overtook the hammock area at the Oslo Riverfront Conservation Area (ORCA) — only to be shaded out a few years later when the oak canopy filled back in.
Now this vine is back with a vengeance along the return hammock loop trail where extensive professional invasive plant control efforts have liberated it from the seed bank. Hopefully, it will be shaded out as it has been in the past.
A member of the gourd family, Cucurbitaceae, this plant is grown for its fruits in subtropical and tropical parts of Asia, Africa, and the Americas. It is thought to have escaped from cultivation in Florida in 1993. Twenty-years later in 2013, the Florida Invasive Pest Plant Council added this plant to its list of invasive pest plants in category #2, a plant that has increased in abundance but has not yet altered native plant communities. Disturbance allows this pioneer plant to invade in hammocks, scrub, coastal strand, pine flatwoods, and the edges of freshwater marshes.
Balsam pear is easily identified by its orange warty fruits. The fruits split open length-wise to expose seeds covered in a sticky red pulp (aril). Green unripe fruits are eaten as “bitter melon”. The seeds of yellow or orange (ripe) fruits are toxic to humans, though the arils can safely be consumed. This plant is both a food and medicine plant.
Its alternate leaves are deeply divided and have a scalloped appearance. It climbs by long tendrils, often growing atop other vegetation and itself.
Some people call it “stink vine” due to the unpleasant and distinctive odor released when its leaves are crushed.
Its yellow flowers have 5 petals and belie its squash/gourd lineage.