November 1, 2014

What's Blooming Now

If you haven't noticed this pungent-smelling vine with one-inch-diameter yellow flowers and bright orange pods, you will soon. Balsam apple or balsam pear, a relative of cucumbers, gourds and melons, is invading yards and disturbed areas with a vengeance. Its vines blanket the ground and shrubs; its pods peel open when ripe to reveal bright red seed coverings; and it often climbs walls and screens. Balsam apple is a native of Asia, but was known in Western Europe in the 1700s. It has been widely introduced as an ornamental, a source of folk medicine, and as a vegetable around the world. It readily escapes cultivation, and its seeds are commonly spread by birds.

Used for centuries to treat ailments such as influenza and snakebite, the balsam apple has been studied by modern scientists, who have confirmed it may be useful in treating diabetes. It's also shown promise in treating leukemia and some cancers, may have antiviral properties and might even have potential for combating AIDS. Young fruits are edible, and are sometimes pickled or used to add flavor to meat dishes.

However, this plant has a dark side, too: The ripe fruit or seeds are poisonous, and consumption of seeds or roots can induce miscarriage.

- Jerome A. Jackson, Florida Gulf Coast University