Cucamelon – it sounds like something out of a children’s cartoon. I assure you that it is so much more than that. This little gem of a fruit is a wondrous plant that resembles a tiny watermelon. It is also called mouse melon or Mexican sour gherkin. They taste like cucumbers with an aftertaste resembling lime or lemon. They can be pickled, used in salads and added to a variety of cocktails and drinks like gin & tonic. In Mexico, which is their natural habitat they are called sandiita. It simply means tiny watermelon, and they are believed to have been domesticated long before European settlers came to North America. I love them because they are far less fussy than their cousin the cucumber, and will happily grow in a relatively mild climate like ours here in England. Whereas cucumbers generally take a lot of effort to grow outside in our part of the world we get a whole lot of cucamelons. Here’s my guide on how to grow cucamelon – a plant that is versatile, hardier than other summer crops and drought resistant.
My cucamelon experience started a while back when I was offered some seeds. Usually, I’m sceptical when someone gives me something exotic that comes from warmer places, but to my amazement, I found that not only does this vine handle colder temperatures well, it also endures longer drought spells.
While my cucumbers and tomatoes are hanging if they don’t get watered once every two days the cucamelons will happily grow and fruit even if I don’t water them for a week. This is mainly because the cucamelon has a water storing tuber under the ground. By storing water, it enables itself to tolerate higher temperatures and prolonged dry spells in sunny Mexico.
My fascination with this fruit mainly comes down to the fact that it is one of the best pickles I’ve ever tasted, so before I get to the guide on how to grow cucamelon, I will write a few lines on how we use them in our kitchen. It adds a wonderful crunchy tang when added late to a wok or stirs fry, it goes great cut in halves in lemonade, and it is probably the best thing that ever happened to the classic gin & tonic. I like to cut them in halves and freeze them when I add them to cocktails as they double up as coolers. Pickling them is pretty straight forward as they are already quite tangy in flavour, just mix your favourite pickle medium and add them to it. Cucamelons do not need to and should not be cooked in general. They get quite mushy if you treat them with heat for a longer period. Recently I made a great salsa using raw cucamelons; they add a depth of flavour that you’d need 3 or 4 other ingredients to match and hence have become on of my favourite fruits to use.
Now..enough food talk – let’s get to how to grow cucamelon. Essentially you will be told to grow this vine-like you would grow a cucumber. However, I have found that it is much more cold tolerant than its cousin, so I also sow them earlier. Here in England I plant them during the first week of April and set them out as soon as the chance of frost has passed. They will grow slowly at first, but when they get going, they will scramble around anything in their way. Make sure they have something to grip onto. A chicken wire wall or a nearby bush is perfect. We let ours scramble through our potted avocado, lavender and lemon trees and they seem to like this freedom.
When to plant Cucamelons
When you grow cucamelon from seeds, sow them in April. I have had mine for a few years now, so I have tubers, and I just need to make sure to move the pot with the tubers out when the first spring heat hits and the temperatures do not fall below 3°C (37°F). If you are new to this and grow them from seed, then do not expect a huge plant like mine in the first year. A plant grown from a tuber will grow at a much higher pace than a seedling, but you should still expect several handfuls of fruit from one plant in its first year.
Make sure that you do not disturb the tubers when you cut the foliage off during the autumn. I’ve noticed that any tubers that I dug up quickly rotted. I found that simply keeping them in the soil does the trick. I have had great success moving the whole pot including the cucamelon tubers into a shed to overwinter them. The radish lookalike tubers will stay underground and wait for the heat of next spring. I start watering them as I move them outside, but it is important to never over-water them as they will quickly rot. Less is more in this case.
Where to plant Cucamelons
Cucamelon plants prefer full sun to some shade. Ours grows well in a southern facing position, but I have also grown them successfully on an east facing a wall. They will fruit right up until the first frost so you will happily be picking these until November or even December in England. This is one of the reasons why they are rated so highly by gardeners.
When it comes to the soil requirements of the cucamelon, I would advise a pretty nutritious mixture. Make sure to add some grit or bark for drainage as the tuber tends to rot if left in soggy soil. If you do it like this, you can also just move the whole pot into the shed during the winter, and it should be perfectly happy to grow again next year in the same medium, albeit with some added manure or nutrients.
How to harvest Cucamelons
Harvest your cucamelons by simply picking them off without ripping the plant apart. If in doubt use small scissors. They keep growing for quite a while if you harvest carefully.
So to summarize on how to grow cucamelon, make sure that you sow them early enough, give them plenty of support and a nutritious compost and they will be a very steady plant that produces a lot more than you would think. Store the tubers in a frost free, cool and dry place for a much larger crop next season.