Cucamelons, are also called Mexican sour gherkins or mouse melons. Close relatives of cucumbers and other cucurbits, they’re native to Mexico and Central America and have been grown for centuries. It seems they have only just started to become popular in the U.S. They are quite temperature tolerant, and are not susceptible to bacterial and fungal diseases to which cucumber plants are prone. Insects and birds do not bother them. They are about the size of a grape and taste like a citrusy cucumber – the bigger they get the lemonier they taste (the smaller they are the more they taste like cucumbers).
Plant Family: Cucamelons are neither cucumber nor a melon (and the plants will not cross-pollinate with either). They’re in the cucumber family (Cucurbitaceae), but they’re a different species altogether - Melothria scabra. The flowers are very small and the native bees love them! Even if you don’t harvest the fruit, they make a great pollinator plant. Like their cucumber cousins, cucamelons are monoecious, meaning male and female flowers both appear on each plant. The male flowers provide the pollen while the female flowers will go on to produce the fruit. As a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, cucamelons should follow root vegetables (i.e., onions, garlic, turnips, beets, radishes) in crop rotation practice.
How to Grow: Cucamelons are slow to germinate and slow to grow. For Spring planting in Zone 6, it’s best to start the seeds indoors, 3-4 weeks before the last expected frost (May 15 in Zone 6). To avoid disturbing the tender roots when you transplant the seedlings into your garden, use biodegradable pots. Plant two to three seeds per pot, ½” deep. Keep the soil moist and warm - around 70 degrees F. It may take 14 days (or more) for the seeds to germinate so be patient! After the seedlings have emerged, thin them to one plant per pot. Three to five weeks after starting (the seedlings should be at least two inches tall), harden them off, and transplant into your garden. Space the plants at least 2 feet apart. It’s good to grow them on a trellis or other type of support for several reasons:
- the vines are very tender and easily injured when moved.
- it’s easier to spot the fruit when harvesting without disturbing the vines.
- it keeps the fruit off the ground where it can rot in humid weather.
Round tomato cages, tomato trellises, or tomato towers work well for cucamelons.
Use mulch to help keep the soil moist and keeps weeds under control - they have shallow roots so the less you need to weed around them, the less there is a chance that you damage the plant when weeding. You will be rewarded with a long harvest until the last days of summer.
Note: The fruit on one plant is plentiful! Don’t plant the entire seed packet, unless you plan to eat a lot of cucamelons!
Container Friendly?: Yes, cucamelons are a good choice for container gardening as long as they are trellised. They are relatively lightweight, even when full of fruit, so there is a low risk of them falling over. Select a large enough container (at least 12-16” in diameter) and fill with a good potting soil mix that contains lots of nutrient rich compost. Space the seedlings around the trellis.
Try This: When the plant is done producing fruit, dig up the tuberous roots and store in a cool and dry place over the winter. Replant in the spring, and you’ll get an earlier harvest of cucamelons.
How to Harvest: Cucamelons are ready to pick when they are the size of olives or small grapes and are still firm. If you pick them later, they will be very seedy. Cucamelons develop and ripen pretty quickly after the flowers appear, so keep watching your vines daily. The flowers and fruits should be abundant, but if you want to force more to develop, you can pick some of the fruits earlier and before they are ripe. Expect to get a continuous harvest from your mature plants from mid- to late-summer, and well through the fall.
Common Varieties: Cucamelons are often found in the specialty cucumber section of popular seed catalogs (eg., Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Johnny's Selected Seeds, and Territorial Seed Company). Look for Mexican Sour Gherkin – a single variety.
Recipes: Cucamelons are delicious eaten plain or tossed in a salad. Chop them up and throw them into salsa or gazpacho. Pickle them as you would any cucumber. Consider using the pickled cucamelons in place of cocktail onions as a martini garnish. Other recipes can be found here: