Last week, we held a long-distance cucamelon taste test in this blog. The goal was to discover what people really think of this trendy vegetable: the cucamelon (Melothria scabra).
The results are now in and, as of 6 a.m. September 26, 2022, we can see that 20 readers voted for the maligned cucamelon and 36 readers voted against it. So, I think it’s quite clear that the cucamelon is not really ready for prime time. Most people loath it!
However, for the 36 % of the population who can swallow a cucamelon fruit without cringing, here are some tips on how to grow the bitter fruit better.
How to Grow Cucamelons in 10 Easy Steps
Assuming that you are one of the few people who legitimately like cucamelon fruits enough to grow the plant, how complicated is that? And the response is: not at all!
In fact, if you’ve ever grown cucumbers or tomatoes or other fruiting vegetables—that is, ones we usually start indoors—, you can probably carry through with no help from me.
- Sow indoors about 6 weeks before planting out time in a 4-inch (10 cm) pot. Use 2 seeds per pot, setting them about ½ inch (1 cm) deep. Gardeners in mild climates can sow them directly outdoors.
- Keep warm and moist until germination in about 10 to 14 days, ideally under a clear plastic dome. A heating pad can be useful.
- After germination, remove the dome and heating pad. Supply strong sun and continued regular warmth, watering as needed so the seedlings never dry out completely.
- Thin to one seedling per pot (the strongest one) once the first true leaves appear.
- About 2 weeks before planting out, start to acclimatize the seedlings to outdoor conditions.
- Plant outdoors about 2 feet (60 cm) apart in full sun and a rich, moist, well-drained soil at the base of a tall trellis or tomato cage. You can plant in containers or in the ground.
- Water regularly through the summer. Fertilize monthly with a favorite fertilizer.
- Start harvesting when fruits are the size of olives or small grapes.
- Harvest through the summer into fall.
- Dig up and store the tuberous root in a frost-free place for the winter. It can be replanted the following year. Or let a few fruits mature and harvest their seeds, storing them dry over the winter to sow the following spring.
Calling All Hybridizers!
And this is where the hybridizers are supposed to step in. And who knows? Maybe they already have!
The history of vegetables is full of quasi-inedible plants made edible by careful selection.
Wild carrots (Daucas carota), for example, taste awful: they’re at best a famine food. Yet people centuries ago harvested seed from the best tasting ones, and seed of the best tasting ones of the next generation. And repeated that for generations. Until gradually they ended up with the delicious carrot we know today. The bitter brown root of the wild carrot had become the deliciously sweet orange one of today’s domesticated carrot. It’s so different, taxonomists give it subspecies status: Daucus carota sativus (“sativus” meaning edible).
Wild lettuce (Lactuca serriola) was no better. So bitter, it’s hard to imagine anyone eating it! And indeed, at first, it was mostly grown for the oil extracted from its seeds. But the first spring leaves weren’t so bad, so someone started choosing lettuce for improved taste. And kept at it for over 2,000 years. The lettuce is that the ever-so-bitter wild lettuce become the fairly bland modern garden lettuce with all its shapes and colors now called L. sativa. And indeed, it’s now considered a very mild vegetable.
The Cucamelon of the Future
So, there is still hope for the cucamelon. 10 to 1 the first “sweet” cucamelons will be available within a decade.
And then they’ll show up in rainbow colors. (And no, the latter remark is not a joke! It’s just the way edible plants tend to evolve when handed to hybridizers. Humans like pretty colors as much as sweet tastes!)