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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Letting the Bitter Gourd Spread & Hoping to Reap a Healthy Harvest

Some time ago, my landlord happened to mention in passing, during one of our long chats that we catch up for every now and again, that he had roughly sown a few bitter gourd seeds in a corner of his garden upstairs. Then, a few days ago, he asked me if I would help him organize the creeper that had now started traipsing over everything else, one tightly wound green tentacle at a time. To my surprise, when I got up there, I thought he’d recreated part of a Star Trek set with some plant infestation from the planet Gourdobitter. It wasn’t a small plant whose seeds he had just scattered a couple of weeks ago. This was a fully-fledged, creeping everywhere possible, luscious fruit-bearing vine that needed to be trained. So, with a few pieces of plastic tie I strung up a spaced out, somewhat random grid that the bitter gourd vine could spread across. Here’s how big it was after that initial bit of “training”.

Bitter Gourd Vines Aplenty

While I was training it, I noticed that several bitter gourd fruit, or bitter melons, or bitter squash as it is also sometimes known (Latin name Momordica charantia) had ripened beyond the point of being edible, hidden away under all the leaves and crisscrossing vines, that were grabbing other vines, while being themselves grabbed by yet another network of vines. It was madness to say the least! But, there were some fine examples of bitter gourd hidden in there that promised to turn into some succulent side dish in a couple of days. It was fascinating to see fruit and flowers on the same vines, almost like a live diorama of the various stages of the plant's life cycle.

Bitter Gourd, Various Life Stages

Also while I was helping him clean up the web of bitter gourd entanglement that was just moments ago what passed for his once beautiful garden of various hibiscus and 9 o’clock Flower (same as the 10 o’clock Flower whose behavior I mistakenly attributed to the yellow rain lily, because it blooms an hour earlier at this latitude in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, as opposed to Tellicherry, Kerala, for example) pots, not to mention a pretty collection of lantanas, I happened to notice that there were a few seedlings that had sprouted near the base, and promised to recreate this carnage in the near future if not nipped in the bud a ce moment.

Attempting to Recreate Success

It was suggested by my landlord that we take a few of them down and let them spread up one of the coconut trees. It took a few days, and not all of them made it, but after I finally figured out using this random wire frame that I found in the backyard scrap heap of construction from years gone by, I decided to enhance its effectiveness by weaving those little bits of the mesh-like weaving that helps hold coconut palm leaves in place at their base, attaching them to the tree. Actually the story of how I ended up with quite a bit of this “material” is quite interesting, but sad for the little bitter gourd seedlings.

You see, on the third day after I had transplanted them near the coconut tree, there came a fellow who was hired to clean both coconut trees of their annual “gunk”, like old leaves and decaying flower fronds, etc. Well, the cleaning resulted in copious amounts of this mesh-like stuff that I made liberal use of around the garden. Unfortunately, not being hired to pay attention to his surroundings, or indeed another living thing in question except for the task in hand, the first load of palm leaves, spent flower fronds, and dud coconuts came crash down upon four little bitter gourd seedlings. :-( And then, there were two healthy ones.

Surviving Bitter Gourd Seedlings

Originally, after I came downstairs and cleared away the mess in the hopes of finding any “survivors”, I noticed that three of them had escaped grievous injury, but one of the three was not completely out of the woods yet. Soon enough, it seemed to have perished a day or two ago, but not before seeing its neighbor start to shoot up with a brand new, coiled tentacle that’s grabbing on to the mesh-like coconut palm material. About why I put that there in the first place, well, late one night I got to thinking a little bit. In fact, it was the night following the day of this aerial assault on the poor bitter gourd seedlings. I remembered how there was another vine which, come summer, would end withering away, unable to bear the heat of the metal pipes that it was wound around.

Bitter Gourd Flower (Taken elsewhere)

Summers in Hyderabad have touched 43 degrees Centigrade, as recently as a month ago, even. It’s easy to imagine a plant being unable to cope with this kind of out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire action for 12 hours a day or more. Of course, the metal on this tiny painted-white iron grill were narrow, but they were metal nonetheless. So, I decided I’d try using the mesh-like material to both help give the bitter gourd creeper something to cling to, and to have this “something” be of a natural fiber that would stay temperature neutral during extremes of hot and cold.

Bitter Gourd...Up, up and away!
The “weaving them through the slots” idea came to me, rather painfully I’m not ashamed to say, the morning after the night that I had this “reflection” about the other creeping vine that I remembered faring not-so-well on the metal pipes. I’m sure one of the neighbors must’ve seen me and wondered, “WTF?” because I was standing there with this, what is normally considered ‘trash’ in one hand, and sort of glancing back and forth between this hand and the other, which was pointing at the little seedlings, all while grunting like a Neanderthal. Maybe they even called the cops, but I’d figured out what I had wanted to do, done it, and disappeared before they could overcome their early morning bewilderment and make the call. Either way, I’m glad the remaining seedlings who survived are showing signs of improvement and of liking my little arrangement. I’d love to give them feedback cards and get a more accurate reading of what my success areas were and where I need to improve, but we all know what a waste of time that would be. I mean, after all, how do you expect a plant to fill out a questionnaire…even if they were allowed someone to assist it in filling out the answer sheet? ;)

That’s how things are at the moment, vis-à-vis the bitter gourd seedlings. Here’s hoping that, even if they don’t end up going as wild as the ones upstairs, that they will grow to a ripe old age, bearing many fruit, not necessarily for the people at home, but even for passing birds and other animals. I wouldn’t even mind if the bandicoot ate its fill and left nothing for me. So what if this increases longevity? I’d prefer an ageless rodent burrower that stayed away from everything else in the garden, to one that treated it like a buffet menu. Let’s see what the future will bring…

A Bountiful Bitter Gourd Harvest

Incidentally, my landlord came by a day or two ago with a handful of bitter gourd fruit that he had plucked, and placed them in my hand. I was touched, and eager to give it a shot. I followed a recipe I found online, but I'm going to have to admit I need more practice attempting a bitter gourd side dish anytime soon. Varying in size, I have to say that each one of them was beautifully formed, no matter how big or small. Now that's a "healthy" harvest, if I've ever seen one, and here's hoping to reap the same, or better, soon enough. :D

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