The joy of bitter melon

A bitter melon rests in someone's hand.
Bitter melon ready for harvesting at the Common Table Farm
 on September 28, 2022
Melodie Ng

As I reflect on this season at the Common Table Farm, the word that comes to mind is challenge. This summer has been a challenge – or more accurately, a series of challenges. Our urban farm, which supports the community of Flemingdon Park in Toronto, has seen its share of obstacles this year. We’ve experienced fluctuating temperatures, very little rain and tremendous weeds. As I pulled up incessant vines, scripture popped into my head. Surely the Old Testament writers were thinking of the curse of bindweed when they wrote, “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field” (Genesis 3:17-18). We have definitely been experiencing plenty of thistle! The pest pressure has been blessedly low, but perhaps the insects are as confused by the weather as we are.

Constrained by funds, we were unable to hire seasonal workers until later in the season. This meant that seedlings were late going into the ground, which led to stunted plants. Then there were bean weevils and mice. Finding last year’s saved seed pockmarked by weevils and seedlings nibbled down overnight by mice is not a good way to start your morning. Last but not least, there were the incidents of theft. First a wheelbarrow was stolen, then all our pointed shovels disappeared (inexplicably, our flat-edged shovels were left untouched). With all these challenges rolling in one after the other, there were days – especially the 40C with humidex days! – when I felt ready to throw in the towel.

Thankfully, the wisdom of my farm mentor Amy nudged me in a more hopeful direction. In one of our conversations, she asked, “What brings you joy on the farm?” I realized that bitter melon was my joy. Bitter melon – known also as fu gua, karela, pavakkai, caraille, muop dang and ampalaya, among other names – is a part of cuisines and cultures as diverse as Toronto. This is my first try at growing bitter melon. It has been a delight, right from opening the packet of seeds. Bitter melon seeds are marvellous – large and odd-shaped, rough-looking like a piece of bark. My co-worker Mateo thought they looked like tiny turtles. As the first seedlings sprouted and grew, I noticed that even the young leaves smelled fragrant and bitter. I watched the plants begin to wind up the trellis, grabbing hold with tendrils thin and strong. At first glimpse of the bitter melon flower, I was a kid again – I waved over my co-worker Anélia, and together we marvelled at the delicate yellow petals. The tiny bumpy melon taking shape behind the flower brought much excitement to these farmers! We watched as the first pale green melons became rounder and fuller. This particular variety – “Big Top” – is harvested when “softball size.” Bitter melon is a highly nutritious and medicinal plant, well known to Caribbean, South Asian and East Asian communities. Even saving its seed is a fascinating, squishy delight – the overripe fruit bursts open to reveal a scarlet treasure chest of gloopy seeds.

Why wax poetic about a melon? Because these little guys tell me it’s all worth it. The days of battling weeds include a glimpse of a brilliant gold finch flitting through the farm. The dismay caused by diseased tomato plants coexists alongside the satisfaction of harvesting a bright yellow zucchini. The sound of water gushing from a broken irrigation pipe (cue much frustration) is followed by the discovery of fascinating cicada husks clinging to the wheel of a wheelbarrow. I’m privileged to farm in a context that allows me to stop and watch, wonder and enjoy. Our scale is human-sized. The farm demands that I work hard, but not at the expense of taking a moment to marvel at a darner dragonfly’s perfectly clear wings.

Our farm has not produced as much as planned this season. But our community continues to receive fresh vegetables through what the land is offering and through our partnerships with other farms. We can take care of soil, grow food and feed a community – and we find that every frustration and problem is part and parcel with the joys. Taking time to revel in bitter melon reminds me that this life is to be lived vibrantly and fully. I’m assured that it’s okay to face challenges. It’s okay that we’re not as productive as we had planned in the winter, when the season was imagined and idealized. Big Top reminds me that despite the challenges of farming, there is immense wonder in being nourished by the earth.

One sweltering day, our staff and volunteers took a break under the shade of the maples. Kristen commented that she loves coming to work on our farm because it’s an oasis from the stresses of her airline job. Marianne, another dedicated volunteer, nodded her head in agreement and said simply, “The healing garden.” Indeed, this garden is healing. This summer I’ve learned that bitter melon has medicinal qualities not only for the body, but also for the mind and soul


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