Prota 2: Vegetables/Légumes
Sp. pl. 2: 1009 (1753).
2n = 22
Balsam apple, african cucumber, southern balsam pear (En). Margose, courgette africaine, concombre balsamite (Fr). Balsamina de purga, balsamina pequena (Po).
Origin and geographic distribution
Momordica balsamina occurs throughout Africa south of the Sahara, but not in the Indian Ocean islands; it is also found in Yemen, India and Australia. It occurs wild in tropical America as well, probably as a result of introduction.
The leaves and young fruits of Momordica balsamina are cooked and eaten as a vegetable in Cameroon, Sudan and southern Africa. The bitter young fruits have been reported widely as edible, whereas the ripe fruits cause vomiting and diarrhoea, and can be poisonous. The bright red fruit pulp is eaten in Namibia.
The leaves and stems serve as camel fodder. In Senegal donkeys, cattle, sheep and goats feed on it but horses avoid it. In Queensland, Australia, leaves and flowers were fed to sheep without causing problems. The leaves are used to clean metal objects and to wash hands and body. They form a slightly soapy solution in water. Medicinal use of Momordica balsamina is widespread and diverse. Common, widespread uses are as an anthelminthic (fruits, seeds and leaves), against fever and excessive uterine bleeding (leaves), and to treat syphilis, rheumatism, hepatitis and skin disorders. Other uses are as an abortifacient, aphrodisiac and lactogenic, and in treating diabetes. The whole plant, together with Strophanthus, is used in the preparation of an arrow poison in parts of Nigeria. Ripe fruits may have caused the death of dogs and pigs.
The composition of the leaves per 100 g is: water 89.4 g, protein 3.0 g, fat 0.1 g, carbohydrate 3.6 g, fibre 0.9 g, Ca 340 mg, Mg 87.1 mg, P 27.7 mg, Fe 12.7 mg, Zn 0.9 mg, thiamin 0.01 mg, riboflavin 0.09 mg, niacin 0.7 mg, ascorbic acid 0.4 mg.
The composition of the fruits per 100 g is: water 89.4 g, protein 2.0 g, fat 0.1 g, carbohydrate 5.1 g, fibre 1.8 g, Ca 35.9 mg, Mg 41.2 mg, P 35.8 mg, Fe 2.6 mg, Zn 1.0 mg, thiamin 0.04 mg, riboflavin 0.06 mg, ascorbic acid 0.5 mg (Arnold, T.H., Wells, M.J. & Wehmeyer, A.S., 1985).
The bitter taste of all parts of Momordica balsamina may be caused by cucurbitacins, as in many other Cucurbitaceae, but may also be caused by saponins. The ribosome inactivating protein momordin II has been isolated, as well as the caffeic acid ester rosmarinic acid, which is of pharmaceutical interest because of its anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial and antioxidant activities.
Monoecious, annual or short-lived perennial herb, trailing or climbing with simple tendrils; stem up to 1.5 m long, angular. Leaves alternate, simple; stipules absent; petiole 0.5–6 cm long, pubescent; blade broadly ovate to orbicular, 1–9 cm × 1–12 cm, deeply palmately 5–7 -lobed, lobes 3–5-lobulate. Flowers solitary, unisexual, regular, 5-merous; male flowers with pedicel 1.5–10 cm long, receptacle 2–4.5 mm long, sepals 0.5–1 cm long, petals 1–2 cm long, pale yellow, cream or white, and 3 free stamens; female flowers with pedicel up to 0.5 cm long, receptacle 0.5–1 mm long, sepals narrow, up to 0.5 cm long, petals 0.5–1.5 cm long, and inferior, 1-celled ovary. Fruit an ovoid-ellipsoid berry 2.5–4.5 cm long, tuberculate, bright orange or red, dehiscing with 3 valves, exposing the many seeds embedded in red pulp. Seeds ovate, compressed, 9–12 mm long.
Momordica comprises about 40 species, the majority of which are African. Where Momordica balsamina and Momordica charantia L. both occur, they are not clearly distinguished by the local population. Hence, many vernacular names apply to both.
Momordica balsamina is widespread throughout the drier parts of tropical Africa. It is mainly found on sandy soils, from sea-level up to 1600 m altitude. It occurs in woodland, wooded grassland, on river banks and in dry river beds.
Momordica balsamina is mainly collected from the wild, but widely cultivated as well. It is planted close to homesteads, often growing over fences and huts.
Genetic resources and breeding
Momordica balsamina is widespread and not in danger of genetic erosion. Transfer of genes within the genus is possible, allowing improvement of notably Momordica charantia.
The contradictory reports on toxicity of Momordica balsamina plant parts should instil caution when transferring uses from one area to another. As in many other cucurbit species, different types may occur: bitter and toxic as well as non-bitter and edible ones.
• Arnold, T.H., Wells, M.J. & Wehmeyer, A.S., 1985. Khoisan food plants: taxa with potential for future economic exploitation. In: Wickens, G.E., Goodin, J.R. & Field, D.V. (Editors). Plants for arid lands. Proceedings of the Kew International Conference on Economic Plants for Arid Lands. Allen & Unwin, London, United Kingdom. pp. 69–86.
• Burkill, H.M., 1985. The useful plants of West Tropical Africa. 2nd Edition. Volume 1, Families A–D. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, United Kingdom. 960 pp.
• Jeffrey, C., 1978. Cucurbitaceae. In: Launert, E. (Editor). Flora Zambesiaca. Volume 4. Flora Zambesiaca Managing Committee, London, United Kingdom. pp. 414–499.
• Jeffrey, C., 1980. A review of the Cucurbitaceae. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 81: 233–247.
• Neuwinger, H.D., 1996. African ethnobotany: poisons and drugs. Chapman & Hall, London, United Kingdom. 941 pp.
• Burkill, H.M., 2000. The useful plants of West Tropical Africa. 2nd Edition. Volume 5, Families S–Z, Addenda. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, United Kingdom. 686 pp.
• Jeffrey, C., 1979. The economic potential of some Cucurbitaceae and Compositae of tropical Africa. In: Kunkel, G. (Editor). Taxonomic aspects of African economic botany. Proceedings of the 9th plenary meeting of AETFAT. Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Spain. pp. 35–38.
• Okoli, B.E., 1984. Wild and cultivated cucurbits in Nigeria. Economic Botany 38(3): 350 –357.
• Stevels, J.M.C., 1990. Légumes traditionnels du Cameroun: une étude agrobotanique. Wageningen Agricultural University Papers No 90-1. Wageningen University, Wageningen, Netherlands. 262 pp.
• Story, R., 1958. Some plants used by the bushmen in obtaining food and water. Memoirs of the Botanical Survey of South Africa No. 30. 113 pp.
• van Wyk, B.E. & Gericke, N., 2000. People’s plants: a guide to useful plants of southern Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria, South Africa. 351 pp.
• Watt, J.M. & Breyer-Brandwijk, M.G., 1962. The medicinal and poisonous plants of southern and eastern Africa. 2nd Edition. E. and S. Livingstone, London, United Kingdom. 1457 pp.
• Zemede Asfaw & Mesfin Tadesse, 2001. Prospects for sustainable use and development of wild food plants in Ethiopia. Economic Botany 55(1): 47–55.
Correct citation of this article:
Bosch, C.H., 2004. Momordica balsamina L. In: Grubben, G.J.H. & Denton, O.A. (Editors). PROTA 2: Vegetables/Légumes. [CD-Rom]. PROTA, Wageningen, Netherlands.