Maybe you call them cucamelons, mouse melons, Mexican miniature watermelons, Mexican sour cucumbers, Mexican sour gherkin or pepquinos. Or in Spanish, sanditas, meaning little watermelons. But there’s just one plant behind all those names: Melothria scabra, native from Mexico to Venezuela.
It’s a climbing plant, with thin, cucucumber-like stems and tendrils that wrap around stems and trellising. The leaves look like small cucumber leaves, as do the tiny yellow flowers, borne at leaf axils all over the plant. You can tell the two are close relatives and, indeed, they belong to the Cucurbitaceae family (squash family), so are kissing cousins. They even share a sour taste … but more about that later.
We grow cucamelons for their tiny olive-shaped fruits about 1 to 1 ½ inches (2.5 to 4 cm) long. This is where the “melon” part of the name cucamelon comes in. The plant looks and even tastes vaguely like a cucumber (cuca-), but the fruit looks like a tiny watermelon (-melon), thus “cucamelon”! They are even pale green with darker stripes and mottling, like a watermelon. But only on the outside. Inside, the flesh is green, not red, and full of immature seeds (immature when we harvest them, that is). And sour. To my taste, terribly sour!
A Long History
I first tried growing this plant as a vegetable about 35 years ago. At the time, I was seriously into community gardening and was testing all sorts of new vegetables to see how they would adapt locally. I found it easy to grow and very prolific. Also, very disease- and insect-resistant. Each plant produces hundreds of tiny fruits each year. But I soon dropped it. Because to me, they tasted just awful. They’re so sour. Just thinking about biting into one and my face screws up into the “sourpuss face” we all recognize. Yes, decades later, my body still recognizes it and tries to warn me not to try it again.
But I did.
You see, about 5 years ago, cucamelon suddenly became a thing again. Who knows why? Everyone was growing them and supplying such glowing reports about its flavor! “Delicious!” “Like a crunchy sour cucumber!” Etc. Maybe I had gotten it wrong? Had I banished it from my repertoire unfairly? So, I started one plant. (The flowers are self-fertile and will accept pollen from the same plant, so you only need one.) And grew it for the summer. It grew quickly and I set up an intricate trellis system to support the abundant stems that I knew from experience would follow.
Soon there were dozens of flowers, all female, then about 2 weeks later, male flowers started to show up. With insects like bees transferring the pollen from male flowers to female ones, fruits soon began to develop.
From then on, the fruits came on fast and furiously. They’re best harvested immature, before the outside softens, as then they become bitter. Yes, bitter on top of sour! Not too encouraging.
So, I harvested a first fruit and bravely … offered it to my wife to test. She spit it out. “This is awful!” she said. “I can’t believe people actually eat it!” I assured her they did and ate one in front of her, trying not to choke. She looked skeptical, but agreed to try cooking them and pickling them. Finally, after a few experiments and undoubtedly a truckload of sugar, she gave up, unable to find a use for the nasty little fruits.
We tried pawning them off on the kids, the grandkids, neighbors and friends (former friends). We did find a few people who liked them. A few were even interested enough that they thought they might grow their own! But I’d say more people disliked them than they liked them. Far more.
What do you think of cucamelons? Honestly? Not in front of the in-crowd for whom they are so trendy that you may feel you have to pretend to like them to be accepted, but in private.
Because I’m kind of wondering if there isn’t a little “emperor’s new clothes” thing going on here, where no one wants to be the first to admit the fruits are god-awful.
Let us know by clicking in the appropriate spot.
I tried to make this as simple as possible. Therefore, no beating around the bush. Do you like cucamelons or not? Let us know!
Laidback Gardener Cucamelon Taste Test
We’ll announce the results of the taste test next week!