Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
This fall when I was at a regular Master Gardener meeting, a basket was being passed around. In it were what looked like tiny watermelons. I asked what they were and was told that they were mouse melons, easy to grow and delicious.
What are Cucamelons?
Cucamelons (Melothria scabra) are fruit bearing vines that are native to Central America. They were domesticated by the native peoples there long before the arrival of Europeans. The vines are members of the cucurbit family which includes cucumbers, melons and squash.
Cucamelon vines grow to about 10 feet long. You will need to provide something for them to climb on or they will sprawl all over your garden. A trellis works fine because the fruit is not heavy. You can grow them in a container as long as you provide the vines with something to climb.
The leaves look like cucumber leaves but are much smaller. The flowers are tiny like the fruit and yellow. The fruit develops at the base of the female flowers.
It’s the fruit that will catch your eye. They are tiny, only about 1 inch long and look like the world’s tiniest watermelons, hence the name Mouse Melon. They taste like cucumbers with citrus notes. They are usually eaten raw in a salad or even by themselves as a quick snack. They can also be pickled resulting in yet another nickname, Mexican sour gherkins.
How to Grow Cucamelons
Cucamelons are grown like cucumbers. You will want to wait until the soil and the air has warmed before planting your vines. In my zone 6 NJ garden, I wait until the last weekend in May before planting my cucurbits. While you are waiting, you can prepare your garden by working in compost. Like all cucurbits, cucamelons are heavy feeders which means that they require more nutrients, specifically nitrogen than most vegetables and will quickly exhaust the nutrients in your soil. You will need to fertilize regularly during the growing season to keep up with their needs. They will also need full sun and soil that has a pH of 6 to 7.
Plant 1 to 2 vines in hills that are 1 to 2 feet around and 2 to 4 feet apart. If you are growing in a container, the rule of thumb is one vine per 24 inch container. Don’t forget to install a trellis or something for your vines to climb. Cucamelons are monoecious, meaning the vines have both male and female flowers on them. They are self-pollinating so if you don’t have a lot of space, you can grow just one vine and still have fruit.
Once your vines are planted and watered in, add a thick layer of mulch to keep the soil moist between waterings and to keep down weeds which will compete with your vines for nutrients.
How to Grow Cucamelons From Seed
Cucamelons have a long growing season so if you are not buying plants and prefer to grow from seed, you will need to start your seed indoors 4 weeks before your last frost date. Plant them in biodegradable pots such peat pots. They do not like having their roots disturbed so they are difficult to transplant. The advantage of using biodegradable pots is that you can plant the whole pot in your garden and it will break down, enriching your soil. Sow your seeds ½ inches deep and then prepare to be very patient. They could take 3 to 4 weeks to germinate.
You can transplant your seedlings into your garden once the soil and air has warmed. You can plant them in hills that are 1 to 2 feet around and 2 to 4 feet apart. Or you can plant them in containers, one vine per 24 inch container.
How to Harvest Cucamelons
Cucamelons are easy to harvest. There is no guesswork involved. When the fruit is 1” in length, you can harvest it. Use your pruners or a sharp knife and cut the fruit off of the vines rather than pull them off which can damage the vines. You’ll be happy to discover that the more you harvest, the more fruit that will be produced. Your vines will continue to produce fruit right up until they are killed by frost in the fall.
© 2020 Caren White