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Forgotten herb: balsam apple

balsam apple pods in my hands

A funny thing happened on the way to the drug store…ah, this is so me. We were on vacation in the Florida Keys, and I took a short walk across the street to pick up a few things at the drug store. I stopped to admire a pretty bush with silvery leaves, and something bright caught my eye. A neon orange, spikey fruit called the balsam apple dangling from a vine. I had to know more.

Bright orange balsam apple hanging from vine. Poisonous

When I came back from my walk, I searched the web for more info. Then, I went back to the bush and collected samples of the vine, fruits and seeds. You don’t think the drugstore would mind that I borrowed their weeds, do you? I had so many questions. What are the uses? Is it native to the US? How did it get there? Is it historic?

The scientific name is Momordica balsamina. That is only important if you feel compelled to buy seeds. It’s not an apple, and you don’t make balsamic vinegar from it. If you grew up in Asia or Africa, you might know this herb or one of its close cousins, like the bitter melon. It is used as a herb or a vegetable in some Asian and African nations, but balsam apple is pretty much unknown in the US.

It is historic though, even in the US. Thomas Jefferson grew balsam apples at his experimental garden at Monticello. I’ve read a few books about that garden. In addition to eating the leaves and unripened pods, our ancestors used balsam apple to treat wounds. Sadly, most of the knowledge about how to use it to treat wounds has been lost to time. The former president was a big fan of flowering vines, but the plant is not native to the US. It is believed to have originated in Africa.

Little yellow flowers of balsam apple

Unique look

Balsam apples are so ugly, they’re beautiful. The vine is long and straggly. The balsam apples themselves begin life as adorable little yellow flowers, which become lumpy, warty green fruits. If left to ripen, the green fruits turn neon orange and squishy. When they open, there are three rows of sticky, wax-covered red seeds inside. You can see some of the sticky wax on my fingers in this photo.

red wax covered seeds of the balsam apple

How to use a balsam apple

Young, green fruits and leaves can been eaten raw, stewed or fried. While I wouldn’t recommend eating random vines you find growing on the side of parking lots, I did taste the leaves. They’re bitter. Really bitter. Even though I enjoy strong flavors, I am not so sure about eating any quantity of balsam apple raw. And there are some warnings

Do not ever eat the seeds or the ripe, orange fruit. It is poisonous and can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Avoid ingesting balsam apple if you are pregnant, for fear of causing miscarriage. That really freaks me out. I would avoid balsam apples and bitter melons entirely if I were pregnant or planning to be pregnant.

Ashley at My Heart Beets wrote a funny post and recipe for the cousin of the balsam apple (even though she refers to bitter melon as balsam apple, it isn’t, but they’re close). She compares the flavor of bitter melon to a potent beer.

However, this recipe for Cassava root and balsam apple sounds pretty intriguing. Here, the leaves are used as an herb to flavor the dish than as the bitter, pungent star of the meal.

balsam apple pods in my hands

Should I sell balsam apple at my farm stand?

Referring back to the whole concept of farmstand culture, if you have a farm stand that serves people from Africa or Asia, especially India, China, Mozambique, Nepal, or Vietnam, you might consider growing balsam apple or bitter melon. Start asking your neighbors if they would be interested in this mostly forgotten herb.

When they’re in stock, you can snag a pack of seeds here. Once you grow the balsam apple vine, you should be able to harvest plenty of seeds for future plantings and never need to buy seeds again.

Considering its strongly bitter flavor, balsam apple would be a tough sell to people who did not grow up with the herb, like most Americans. It will attract a ton of attention, but you’ll have to do a ton of educating. You could try one of my recommendations to increase your farm stand income and pair a small pint of green balsam apples with a recipe. Your patrons will need more information and ideas.

Remember, once ripe, the orange balsam apples are dangerous and should never be sold. If you don’t harvest them when they are very young and green, do not sell the fruit to your farm stand patrons. I would include a warning about the risk of miscarriage, which is likely a big buzz kill for your farm stand customers.

The plant is pretty prolific. You should get a lot of unripe, green balsam apples from each vine, and, but be careful, as the residents of South Florida have discovered, the plant can become a bit invasive. It’s not hard to weed out; it’s a pretty simple vine. I’d say, oh I don’t know, chives are a much bigger problem if they go to seed.

An introduction to balsam apples, a cousin of bitter melon, that grows wild in warm, tropical climates. Balsam apples were popular a US President grew them in his garden...but are now mostly forgotten.

Future of balsam apples

Once a featured conversation-starter in a president’s garden, balsam apples now grow in complete anonymity in the bushes along the drugstore parking lot. It is a rare and fascinating herb. One that deserves more study. What properties made it so attractive to our ancestors to use to treat wounds? The true benefits and risks of balsam apple vines remain mostly a mystery.

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Balsam apple opening sticky red seeds
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Forgotten herb: sorrel

Sorrel comes in a bunch of different varieties. I grow French sorrel in my garden. Wild sorrel grows in the woods and along parking lots throughout the US and Europe. My French and English friends might be surprised that I’m writing about sorrel in a  forgotten herb series. They haven’t forgotten it. Americans have.

close enough pronunciation “sore-uhl”

french sorrel

We imported it in earnest in the 1700s and forgot about it entirely sometime in the 1900s. Hey, it’s ok. A 200-year run is longer than I will have.

One of my favorite gardening moments happened last year when a friend from my kid’s preschool pulled into my yard in her Tesla. She saw me in the garden and decided to stop by. She spent a few minutes asking me to identify plants for her. You know I loved it! Then without me saying a word, she gasped, “Oh sorrel! I haven’t seen it since I was a kid in Belgium.” I told her she could have some anytime.

Americans are surrounded by wild-growing sorrel, but most of us never even notice it. Although, Google Trends tells me there is a slow, steady increase happening in the number of searches for “sorrel”. I mean slow increase though. We’re in year eight, still going.

Again, Vermont leads the States in searches for a forgotten herb. Number two by the skin of their teeth is Utah. Why Utah? Someone from Utah please tell me why your people are searching for sorrel. By the way, if you do just a few more googles in Utah, you’ll bump Vermont down to #2. Just letting you know.


Sorrel in the wild

You probably crushed some sorrel by accident the last time you went on a hike. It grows wild almost everywhere in the US. I never suggest you eat anything growing wild. It’s  dangerous, especially if you haven’t taken classes or become an expert at identifying wild plants. However, if you were an expert plant identifier and lost in the forest, you could survive on sorrel for awhile; then, you’d get kidney stones from all the oxalic acid.

But, on the bright side, you’d bunk scurvy because one cup of sorrel has more Vitamin C than an orange. It might be even healthier than a cup of kale. I don’t know. We can debate it.

Eating sorrel

Sorrel is delicious as a fresh, green bed for steamed white fish. In fact, my number one recommendation for cooking with sorrel is to use it fresh, wash it and lay it down under a steaming, hot piece of seasoned white fish. Do not steam the sorrel. It doesn’t really hold up well when cooked. It’s better with a raw crispness to it.

My second favorite way to eat sorrel is just straight from the garden. The tart leaves bring a burst of flavor to salads. It would be delicious used as an accent herb in a coleslaw.

Online (or in France) you’ll see sorrel cooked into a soup or a sauce. It’s just good, not great made into a soup. Je suis desolee. It gets a little slimy when heated. I have not tried it chopped into an herbed butter, but I think I’d like that better.

It tastes sour, which shouldn’t become a craving, but I crave the flavor of sorrel. I get my quick fixes with common wood sorrel that you may recognize from a crack in the sidewalk nearest you. Wood sorrel grows everywhere, but please don’t ever eat anything you are unsure of or haven’t researched extensively. Wood sorrel looks like other plants that will at least give you a stomach ache.

Wood sorrel growing in my garden

Sometimes on the internet, I see the taste of sorrel described as citrus. Oooh, that’s not exactly accurate. What they probably mean is that it is a bit tart. There is a sour, lemon-like quality. But if you are expecting an orange or grapefruit flavor when you bite into sorrel, you’ll be disappointed. It’s more like a slightly unripe kumquat.

Why I grow sorrel

I started growing French sorrel in my garden because I read about it in old gardening books. Apparently, our great-great grandparents would be surprised we go our whole lives without eating sorrel in the States. Of course, our great-great grandparents likely had accents from places that did and do still eat sorrel regularly.

My favorite thing about this rich, green plant is that it is the first arrival in my garden in the Spring. Its green shoots give me Spring fever every year, and I just can’t wait to get into the garden and start planting some more.

I’m in Zone 6a. The internet tells me sorrel is only a perennial up to Zone 5. Since my sorrel grows right through the snow in March, I wonder if it doesn’t push that zone a little more. Would someone in a lower zone please weigh in on that?

Blood-veined sorrel is really beautiful.

I grow this French sorrel in my backyard garden. It’s low maintenance for sure!

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Forgotten herb: Nasturtiums

Close-enough pronunciation: “Nah-stir-shums”

Spicy little things and tough too.

I wouldn’t be surprised if you have heard of this one. It probably puts you in the 1% of Americans who have, but it’s not completely erased from memory.

And now, some actual statistics. According to Google Trends (as of September 2018), you are most likely to have searched for nasturtiums if you live in…Alaska! Fascinating.

Nasturtiums are most popular in Alaska and Maine according to Google Trends
Nasturtiums receive the most searches in Alaska (source: September 2018)

It does require a little patience to grow nasturtiums. I don’t often see them at nurseries. They don’t transplant well, but it will save you time and money to grow nasturtiums yourself from seeds. I buy one cheap packet of seeds every Spring and place them all over my yard.

As long as you are patient with the little sprouts, nasturtiums grow well from seed, which might mean getting your hands dirty. But, if you are willing to plant them yourself, you will save a bundle over buying seedlings. You do need some patience. The seedlings are straggly for a little while.

Nast leaf.JPG

When they finally mature and start to bloom, the flowers are abundant. The colors are absolutely bright and brilliant. Keep scrolling for a stunning display of the wide variety of nasturtium colors you can find online.

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You can eat the flowers and the leaves. The flavor is spicy. They make beautiful butters and add a peppery bite to salads. The leaves and flowers can be brewed into tea. Peppery tea. I think I’d have fun mixing fresh nasturtium tea with complementary flavors, like lemon, orange and lavender.

One of the best characteristics is the sturdiness of the flowers. These blooms might look like tissue paper, but they are surprisingly long-lasting in an arrangement.

For the perfect impression and an affordable alternative to orchids, pick a bowl full of nasturtiums and place one bloom on each plate just before your guests arrive for brunch. You can use the leaves as garnish for hors d’oeuvres and platters.

My grandmother, Peg (born 1929), loved nasturtiums. Her sons could identify the plants on sight. Proof positive that we only started to forget this herb recently.

I was on vacation when she passed away in 2016. In my grief and the confusion to pack up and get home asap, I forgot to send flowers to the funeral home. I had a wonderful grandmother who adored her flower gardens, and I…forgot…to…send…flowers…to…her…funeral. Ouch.

It’s not that there weren’t any flowers there. My parents and relatives ordered beautiful, big arrangements with sashes on them: Mother, Grandmother, Aunt, Sister. But, when I arrived at the wake and realized there was nothing from me to her, I felt hollow.

The afternoon before her funeral, I was wandering through the garden in search of some peace and calm. It was mid-August. My nasturtium vines were covered in blooms. What a saving grace.

I picked about 20 flowers and honored Gram’s Irish heritage with a beautifully-simple, hand-gathered arrangement: one big lime-green hydrangea circled by orange and white nasturtium flowers.

Thanks to for letting me take photos of her beautiful variegated nasturtiums for this article.


As promised, here’s a display of some of the stunning colors in the nasturtium rainbow.

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View the whole forgotten herb series.

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Forgotten herbs

Dried calendula flowers diy for oil infusions and healing herb salve

Imagine your great-grandkid never hearing the words mint or parsley or sage?

Well, in a way, you are that great-grandkid. I am that great-grandkid.

As chain grocers and supermarkets opened stores all across the world, they favored plants that travelled well. Over time, we simply forgot about a large number of herbs and veggies that were so common generations before us took them for granted.

Funnier still, you drive by some of them all of the time and might not know it. Some of those old-time, common plants escaped your ancestors’ gardens and are now called by the same generic term, “weeds”.

clary plant

But, all is not lost. In this series I want to take you back to a time when the herbs mentioned here were well known.


Explore the series on Forgotten Herbs.  I hope you try an idea or two. Each of the pages will provide you with links to buy some seeds of your own. Maybe we can bring back the popularity of some of these herbs.

Forgotten herb: borage
Forgotten herb: nasturtium
Forgotten herb: clary sage
Forgotten herb: calendula
Forgotten herb: chicory
Forgotten herb: balsam apple

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