The mystique of mouse melons
There’s no denying that tiny food is adorable. A thimbleful of little berries is cute. Diminutive baby vegetables sport hefty price tags in specialty grocery stores. Why? Because tiny food is irresistible.
Yes, gigantic fruits and vegetables also are awe-inspiring in their own way, like an, “Ohmigod that thing is monstrous. You should enter that in the state fair!” kind of way. But wee fruits and veggies inspire a different kind of awe — the, “Awwwww!” usually reserved for puppies and other baby animals giving you that wide-eyed, shiny Precious Moments figurine stare down.
I challenge anyone to find a cuter Lilliputian produce than the mouse melon. It’s called by many different names including sandita, Mexican sour gherkin and cucamelon, which are evidence of its resemblance to a doll-sized watermelon and taste echoing a cucumber.
The mouse melon, melothria scabra, is a member of the curcubit family, the same family as cucumbers. The bitsy plant originates from Mexico and Central America, but has close relatives in Africa, according to “The Drunken Botanist,” a book by Amy Stewart.
The mouse melon has a relative called “creeping cucumber,” melothria pendula, which grows in the southern United States. However, this relative appears to be mildly toxic, according to North Carolina State University’s Department of Horticultural Science.
Creeping cucumber grows wild in the South, and the ripe fruit is known as a strong laxative. However, the immature fruit is apparently safe to eat. Knowing this, I decided to eat my mouse melons while they were still a bit immature, just in case.
Mouse melons look just like watermelons in miniature, complete with an oblong round shape and their mottled green wiggly stripes. But inside this tiny grape-sized fruit, the mouse melon is a bright green, with hundreds of tiny seeds. The whole fruit is edible, and packs an incredible, watery crunch with a surprisingly similar taste to cucumbers but with a sour, citrusy bite. They smell a little bit like watermelon rinds and fresh-cut grass. I like to eat them straight out of the garden, but I’m sure they would be delicious pickled like regular cucumbers.
The bitsy melons grow profusely on delicate vines, without the fuzziness or prickliness of regular cucumbers. The leaves are so small and fragile that I nearly mistook them for bindweed and pulled them. Mouse melons are relatively easy to grow, although weeds are a potential problem because they can become intertwined with them easily. I strongly suggest constructing a small trellis to keep them off the ground. This should help with the weed issue as well as make it easier for you to spot the itsy-bitsy melons.
This unusual plant could be a beautiful backdrop in a flower garden or a fun thing for children to grow.
One of the tricks to getting mouse melons started is regular water and maintaining moisture so the seeds can germinate properly. Also, I direct-seeded them in the garden instead of starting them indoors, as that didn’t work so well the last time I tried to grow them. You must be patient with mouse melons, as even with warm soil temperatures (65 degrees or hotter), it can take two weeks for germination.
Mouse melon seeds can be difficult to locate, but online you can find them at Baker Creek Seeds and Territorial Seed Co. Some seed companies suggest that mouse melons can be perennials in some parts of the country, but they probably will not survive our Colorado winters and come back for another round, so I’ll be attempting to save their tiny seeds and grow them again.
For information on mouse melons, check out rareseeds.com or territorialseed.com.