A tiny melon from south of the border has been creating a buzz in the farmer’s markets. Its unique flavor, with hints of cucumber and green fava bean, its pest-free and rampant habit of growth, not to mention its huge productivity, all conspire to recommend this unusual vine to home gardeners looking for something new to add to their menus.
The melon’s most common name in Spanish is “sandíita” (little watermelon), but it has a slew of other monikers in local dialects and Native American languages, many of which translate as “mouse melon.” These colloquial names are not surprising because the fruits resemble superminiaturized watermelons, the perfect scale for a mouse-sized picnic.
The scientific name of this plant is Melothria scabra. It is native to Mexico and Central America, and was first described scientifically in 1866 by the French botanist Charles Victor Naudin. I should add in the same breath that Naudin’s Latin nomenclature for the melon is not engraved in stone because there is quite a bit of argument as to where this plant belongs by botanical classification, especially because it has very close relatives in Africa.
If botanists have been late in coming to terms with the mouse melon, Native American peoples have not. It has been a staple of Mexican and Central American diets since pre-Columbian times, hence its great array of names in indigenous languages. These people also use the melon in nonculinary ways, including in medicine, yet little of this information can be found in mainstream literature.
Few, if any, Mexican cookbooks written for North Americans include recipes on how to use mouse melons, yet seeds are readily available in the United States. Now is a good time for our cooks to catch up, especially vegetarian cooks looking for exciting, new ingredients.
Mouse melons are terrific in stir-fries; they can be pickled just like French gherkins, eaten raw in salads or put up like Polish dill pickles. They also can be chopped and added to salsas for extra texture and flavor.
In an effort to popularize the fruit, several seed companies have coined new names, including “cucamelon,” “Mexican sour gherkin,” “cuka-nut” and, in France, “concombre à confire” (preserving cucumber). None of these names really captures the local color of “sandia de raton” (mouse melon in Spanish), but at least, if you do an Internet search, knowing more than one name for the plant can help you find someone who is selling seed for Melothria scabra. Personally, I vote for the name mouse melon. I can visualize the little melons in a Mexican version of a Beatrix Potter story, which may be one reason why children adore them.
Growing mouse melons is no hassle at all. Simply start them indoors the same time you would begin seedlings for cucumbers, and plant them outdoors at exactly the same time. In fact, mouse melons are a little more cool-weather tolerant than most cucumbers, which is an added bonus should you get a late cold spell. I strongly advise creating a wire cage or trellis, because the vines will climb as high as 10 feet. Best of all, the plants will continue to fruit until the first frost, which means in my garden (Zone 7a), I’ll have a bountiful crop from July to mid-November. Having grown the melons for several years now, I also can attest that the plants are fairly drought-resistant, more so than cucumbers. And nothing — not even birds — has attacked the fruit. You also may discover that the plants reseed themselves freely, but letting them run over the ground is not the best way to cultivate them because this invites slug damage.
If you want to save seed, choose the ripest fruits. More likely than not, these will be the little melons that have dropped to the ground — this seems to be a signal from the plant that they are ripe. Take the melons indoors and let them stand a week or two on a tray to further ripen. Then cut them open and scoop out the seeds. Put the seed mass in a jar of water, and let this ferment for at least five days (this kills any virus that might be on the seed). Once a thick layer of scum has formed and the best seeds have dropped to the bottom, remove the scum layer and rinse the remaining mixture in a strainer. Then spread the seeds to dry on a screen in a cool, well-ventilated room and let them remain there for at least two weeks. The seed is dry enough to store in an airtight jar when the individual seeds snap when broken. Properly stored, the seed should remain viable eight to 10 years. But who wants to wait that long to make another salad or batch of salsa?
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Ask for “Mexican sour gherkins”
Seed Savers Exchange
Ask for “Mexican sour gherkins”
Ask for “cucamelons”
Food historian William Woys Weaver packs his Pennsylvania garden with a variety of delicious, exotic vegetables. He is the author of 100 Vegetables and Where They Came From.
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