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Cucamelons

The little fruit of many names – mouse melon, Mexican mini watermelon, Mexican sour cucumber, Mexican sour gherkin, pepquino or sandia de raton in Mexico (‘watermelon for a mouse’).

If you ever want to feel like a giant, hold a cucamelon fruit (Melothria scabra) in your hands. Your eyes will think you’re looking at a watermelon, and your brain will battle to correlate the size of the melon with your huge hands. So what are these tiny little fruits that look like pygmy watermelons? Well, it’s hard to accurately describe them. The literature that we consulted tells us that they’re part of the cucumber Cucurbitaceae family, and that they’ve been grown domestically since before the western world had set foot on Central American soil, from where they originate. Cucamelons are such a fun addition to your summer salads!

What the literature fails to convey is the charm of this little peculiarity, or the excitement it generates in children (and the inner children in most of us at the office!). The sprawling vine can grow up to 3 or even 4m, scrambling over the ground or up any available trellis (which is how we recommend you grow it). While it may look dainty, with a slim stalk and little heart-shaped leaves, the cucamelon plant is actually quite tough, with very few pest or disease problems and no need for abundant water. Once established it is tough and drought tolerant and will produce an abundance of the fruits.

As for the fruits, they are crunchy and delicious, their flavour reminiscent of cucumber but with an almost citrusy zing to it. They can be eaten straight off the vine and are at their best when they’re about 2 – 3cm long, but there is so much more that you can do with them. Obviously they add crunch and zing to a salad or a sandwich, and they are a great addition to a fresh salsa or even a stir-fry. Another option is to use them in your gin or cocktail, instead of cucumber, lemon or olives. And for a unique take on gherkins, pickle cucamelons with a hint of dill and mint. We even found a recipe for cucamelons and noodles!
They’re not only tasty though, and cucamelons also offer the body a host of benefits, to the extent that they have been occasionally labelled with the overused ‘superfood’ tag. They are full of minerals, antioxidants such as lycopenes (which give the heart a helping hand) and beta-carotene, and vitamins such as K, E and C, as well as fair dollop of fibre. This means that they can aid with reducing the risk of cancer, heart diseases and strokes.
How to grow them?
As you’d expect of a plant from Central America, cucamelons like warmth and do best at temperatures of over 20°C, with high levels of humidity and rainfall also beneficial.
• Sow the seeds in mid- to late spring. Germination can take up to a month.
• Grow in full sun, in pots or the ground.
• Plant in rich soil that drains well.
• Water frequently in hot weather for best results.
• Fruit should appear 2 – 3 months after sowing.
• Harvest the fruits when they’re about the size of a grape.
• More resistant to cold and wet than cucumber plants.
• In mild areas the plant will spring up again after winter, when it goes dormant.
• Feed regularly with an organic fertiliser for fruiting plants such as Talborne Organics Vita Fruit & Flower or Atlantic Flower and Fruit, and avoid fertiliser that is high in nitrogen. A chemical 3:1:5 fertiliser will also work well.
Go and get it!
Seeds for the cucamelon are available locally from some of the online heirloom seed retailers.
We found them on: Seeds for Africa
We also found plants for sale from Mountain Herb Estate

For this article and more, get the latest issue of Grow To Eat!