Friday, July 27, 2012

An African Melon in South Carolina

In Oxford’s Sherard collection of Mark Catesby specimens lurks this tidbit, Sher-2195, a tendrilled vine with heavily dissected leaves, characteristic of the cucumber family, Cucurbitaceae. Patrick has identified it as Momordica charantia L., commonly known as Balsam pear, balsam apple, bitter melon, and bitter gourd. The common name is a bit confusing because a related species, Momordica balsamina, also goes by most of those names. No matter.

The notes on the specimen page read: “Bryonia.
Cucumis parvus Marianus, Bryonia alba foliis minoribus, polycarpus Pluk. Manu (?) 59” and “Mr. Catesby S. Carolina USA(?) from the upper part of the country.” The fact that this is in the Sherard collection in Oxford suggests that this plant was collected by Mark Catesby in South Carolina in 1722 or so. The note suggests that he found it some distance from the coast.

But this plant is not native to North America. Alan Weakley says that the vines of the genus Momordica are native to the Old World tropics. Momordica charantia is a native of Africa. Weakley’s flora contains no distribution map for Momordica charantia (though it does for M. balsamina), and notes only that the species has been found recently in the Panhandle of Florida. The USDA Plants distribution map doesn’t have any record of this species occurring in South Carolina.

So Mark Catesby cut a specimen of this plant in South Carolina in 1722. How did it get there?

Charleston, SC, was founded in 1670. It was a major port, and one of the points in North America where ships from Africa unloaded their cargoes of slaves and African plants. Could an African cucurbit make its way from Charleston to the “upper part of the country” by 1720? Fifty years is a long time. Was the plant in a settler’s garden? Did someone bring seeds from Europe?

Momordica was a known garden plant by the early 1800s. Thomas Jefferson planted balsam apple, apparently M. balsamina, in his garden at Monticello in 1810. The Monticello website claims that M. balsamina was introduced into Europe by 1568. (The source for this claim is the book Flowers and Herbs of Early America by Lawrence D. Griffith and Barbara Temple Lombardi, Yale University Press, 2008. I need to check this out of the Clemson library as soon as I head back to campus. I'm dying to know who brought it to Europe, where they got it, and how we know this.) Anyway, the plant had apparently been used as a medicine in Europe for over two centuries and was attractive enough for Jefferson to consider the seeds worth acquiring and planting in his annual bed.

Balsam apples appear in 18th and 19th century American paintings. The Pope Brown Collection of South Carolina Natural History contains this depiction of a Balsam Apple, either Momordica balsamina or Momordica charantia, painted c. 1765-1775 – not so long after Catesby. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has “Still Life: Balsam Apple and Vegetables, ” an oil painting done by James Peale of Maryland. So there were definitely Monardia growing on the East Coast between 1765 and 1820.

Eat The reports that M. charantia occurs from Connecticut south to Florida and west to Texas, as well as in parts south. It’s all over Florida today. This website comfortingly informs me that no one knows where it came from originally.

M. charantia certainly has a global distribution today. It’s a common vegetable throughout Asia, Africa, South America and the Caribbean. (Here's a nice botanical illustration done by a Japanese high school student for the Tsukuba Botanical Garden.) Despite its reputation for bitterness and the fact that it is poisonous if eaten raw, it apparently enhances a variety of dishes. It also has been used as a folk remedy all manner of ailment for centuries, and today is the subject of numerous studies of its pharmacological properties. Some experts think it might be useful for controlling diabetes.