Snake Gourds

Let the snake gourd; a showy, exotic vegetable take center stage in your garden and in your kitchen

| April/May 2005

I have been growing snake gourds off and on for the past 10 years, mostly because of their fantastic size and shape — up to 6 feet long — and their easy, pest-free culture. Striped, speckled and looking very much like dangling green serpents, snake gourds are one of the vegetables that elicit frequent comments from my garden visitors

Ornamental value aside, I always assumed snake gourds tasted like Chinese bitter melons because the two are closely related, and both have a red, slimy seed mass when ripe. Quite the contrary: Snake gourds taste surprisingly like cucumbers. Once I discovered the many excellent ways they are prepared in flavorful chutneys, as zesty pickles and in a host of other Asian dishes, I became an instant convert to their culinary possibilities — and you will too!

Perhaps I should clarify that there are two distinct categories of snake gourds offered by U.S. seed companies. One is a long, ornamental gourd that develops a hard shell when ripe; the other is the waxy-skinned snake gourd discussed here, a vegetable described botanically as Trichosanthes anguina or T. cucumerina. Its genetic origin is the Indian sub-continent, but today, the snake gourd is grown all over the world, especially in tropical regions. It is one of the most popular culinary vegetables in southern India, where many distinct varieties have been developed. Several are worth mentioning here: ‘India Short,’ which resembles a large cucumber with nearly white skin; ‘Extra Long Dancer,’ which is about 4 inches in diameter and the most snakelike in appearance; ‘White Glory,’ a medium-long variety with white skin, and ‘Baby,’ a short, white-skinned variety recently developed by the College of Horticulture at the Kerala Agriculture University in India.

Within the past 10 years, many Indian scientists have taken a great interest in the snake gourd for several reasons: It adapts well to the vegetarian cookery of several Indian religious sects; it is highly productive as a field crop, and the plant has a long association with ayurvedic medicine, which employs it as a cooling ingredient.

All this adds up to a challenging new item for American kitchen gardens as well, and yet snake gourds are not really new at all to our part of the world. Seeds were sent to Europe from China in about 1720, and thus the plant became well known to the European and American botanical communities, although it was grown mostly out of curiosity. It is believed that the great English horticulturist Philip Miller grew the gourd in 1755, and Thomas Jefferson tried it in the 1820's.

But horticulturists were intrigued by more than the long, curiously shaped fruit: The snake gourd’s white, frilly, night-blooming flowers and its rampant vine made it a striking addition to hothouse displays of the time.

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