Is it an exceptionally small cucumber or the world’s cutest watermelon? That is the vexing question.
Melothria scabra, known as 'Cucamelon' or 'Mouse melon' is a tiny melon that has been creating a buzz in the farmer’s markets.
The fruits are small enough to fit into a teaspoon, yet bite into one and the flavour is pure cucumber with a refreshing tinge of lime. Its unique flavour, 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.
These tiny watermelon look-a-likes from Central America have been popular since Aztec times. The vines produce a constant stream of fruit throughout the summer, known as Sandiita or 'little watermelon' in Spanish. Despite their exotic origins and adorable appearance, they are much easier to grow than regular cucumbers. Their lush vines are ignored by pests, resistant to drought and perfectly happy to grow outdoors if given a sheltered sunny site. The vine is attractive and productive enough for hanging baskets. Sow in April to May for harvesting July to September.
Cucamelons can be eaten in exactly the same way as traditional cucumbers - sliced into salads, chopped into salsas or pickled whole like cornichons. Mix whole cucamelons (fresh, blanched or pickled) into a bowl of olives and serve with drinks, or why not go the whole way and spear them with toothpicks and pop them in a martini.
The flavour has been described as 'Cucumber with a bit of watermelon rind and a squeeze of lemon or lime'. This tiny treasure can match the crunch of pretzels and chips.
They are terrific in stir-fries; can be pickled just like French gherkins, eaten raw in salads or pickled. They also can be chopped and added to salsas for extra texture and flavour. A conversation piece in the garden, or as an edible centerpiece at the table.
The Cucamelon plant grows to around 10cm to 15cm (4 to 6in) wide and 1.2m to 1.5m (40 to 50in) tall. It can be treated like a perennial providing you with fruit year-after-year. In late autumn once the fruiting period is over, lift the cucamelon's main radish like root and store in barely moist compost in a garage or shed over winter. Plant out again in early April to achieve early fruiting.
Growing cucamelons 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, cucamelons are a little more cool-weather tolerant than most cucumbers, which is an added bonus should you get a late cold spell. The plants are also fairly drought-resistant, more so than cucumbers, they don’t need the cover of a greenhouse, fancy pruning or training techniques and suffer from very few pests.
The plants make pretty, high-yielding vines that can be planted really close together to get the most out of a small space, as little as 15cm (6in) between plants around a trellis.
Cucamelons are also fine to grow indoors as long as they get enough light and heat, for example in a conservatory or by a bright windowsill in a warm living room.
Sowing: Sow under protection in pots late February to April.
Place seeds on end, blunted end pointing downwards in compost and simply push into compost out of sight. Water thoroughly and germinate at a temperature of around 24°C (75°F). When two or three seed leaves have developed, reduce the temperature to around 18 to 21°C (65 to 70°F).
Cucamelons, unlike most cucurbits (squash, courgettes, pumpkins, etc), take a while to germinate, up to four weeks. The key factor to speeding this up is giving them enough heat. Usually a sunny windowsill is perfect, but under very cold conditions they can be popped into a heated propagator.
Plant out late March in a heated greenhouse or late May in an unheated greenhouse, or later if growing outside. Plant two plants per growbag or one per large pot. Keep the compost moist, always water around the plant, not the foliage.
The vines are delicate to begin with but soon begin to fill out. Letting them run over the ground is not the best way to cultivate the fruit because this invites slug damage. Support the plants with canes, or a simple bamboo wigwam / frame just like sweet peas, then simply let them ramble and scramble skyward.
Harvest: July to September.
Harvest them when they are the size of a grape, but still nice and firm. The best for salads are the tender ones less than 2.5cm (1in) in length that have not developed many seeds. You can tell whether they are tender by simply squeezing them. If they are an inch long and feel hard, they are probably best saved for pickling.
One of the annoying things about a regular cucumber is peeling and seeding it, no need with the cucamelon. Just cut it in half, put it in salad and there you go - instant food. They are perfect for little hands to pick and enjoy. A great fruit to add to a lunch box and a great way to get kids to eat healthy.
To preserve their virtues right in to the depth of winter, you can even make cucamelon dill pickles. Fantastic in a simple ham sandwich or with a fancy cheese-board.
Melothria scabra is native to Mexico and Central America where it has been cultivated and a staple of diets since Aztec times. Native American peoples also use this melon in nonculinary ways, including in medicine, yet little of this information can be found in mainstream literature.
Melothria scabra was first described scientifically in 1866 by the French botanist Charles Victor Naudin. I should add in the same breath that Naudin’s Latin name for this 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, hence its great array of names in indigenous languages. They are best known as 'Sandíitas de Raton' or 'Little Mouse Watermelons' in Spanish.
In an effort to popularise 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 colour of 'sandia de raton' (mouse melon in Spanish). Personally, I vote for the name mouse melon. I can visualise the little melons in a Mexican version of a Beatrix Potter story, which may be one reason why children adore them.
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, as 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. Store the seeds in a cool dry place until next year. Properly stored, the seed should remain viable eight to ten years. But who wants to wait that long to make another salad or batch of salsa?
- Additional Information
Packet Size 20 Seeds Common Name Mouse melon, Mexican miniature watermelon.
(First described in 1866)
Other Common Names Mexican sour gherkin, Mexican sour cucumber Other Language Names MX: Sandíitas de Raton or 'Little Mouse Watermelons'. Family Cucurbitaceae Genus Melothria Species scabra Synonym Zehneria umbellata, Melothria heterophylla Hardiness Tender Perennial Spacing 10 to 15cm (4 to 6in) apart Position Full Sun Soil Fertile, Well Drained Time to Sow April to May Germination 6 to 10 days at 24°C (75°F). Time to Harvest June to September.