Leaf of the Day: Balsam Apple/Pear/Cucumber and Fuch’s Herbal

My other good resolution, to spend less time on the computer was thwarted today as it seems my ageing little Sony laptop is full. So I have spent most of the day transferring some files to an external hard drive…yawn..but it was also a good opportunity to tidy them all up a bit, but then settings have to be changed and other things moved etc etc …so another very late start today.
It also took me quite some time to find out what this was. I saw it yesterday happily carpeting the trellis by the lake at Leu, slightly hidden away, out of sight and reach of the weeders and strimmers. It is, yet another, pretty but not much loved plant. Yes, I can see by just looking at it that it might be a pest but the fruit are so attractive!

My only rather blurred photo..to be replaced when I have a better one.

I think it is the Balsam apple (Momordica charantia L. ) a member of the cucumber family. It name seems to comes from the Latin word Mordio, to bite, and “refers to the bitten appearance of the uneven seeds” and charantia refers to the pointed fruit. It is definitely one of the Momordicas
but some images and information, say it could be Momordica balsamina, the Balsam Pear, or Bitter cucumber… I am confused. To me, the bitter cucumber is ..well ..more like a cucumber to look at. However it is an interesting plant. Like the star anise, one variety seems to be toxic while another is eaten as a vegetable in India and there is talk of preparations being made of the fruit for skin conditions. The Balsam Apple was a well known medicinal plant, introduced into Europe around 1568 to treat wounds , but I am not keen to try anything. There is a stickiness to the seeds that is very off putting.
However it looks very pretty with these beautifully shaped bright orangy yellow pods. As one description has it, “beaked, bumpy, and ribbed.” When they are ripe, they split open to reveal the brilliant red sticky seeds.

Here is a lovely illustration of a “Balsam Pear” from Leonhart Fuchs’ De historia stirpium commentarii insignes ( Notable commentaries on the history of plants) which was first published in 1542 describing in Latin some 497 plants and illustrated with woodcuts.

Herbals were lists and descriptions of plants and their medicinal properties, but earlier herbals were notoriously inaccurate, being based upon images repeatedly copied out from earlier manuscripts and from generation to generation, errors and all. A visual Chinese whispers where the consequences of mis-identification could be disastrous. These excellent woodcuts were based on first hand study and recording.

Fuchs was a fascinating man and I quote from the excellent text accompanying these images from Glasgow University Library site here

“Fuchs’ great herbal…was conceived on a much larger scale than the herb books of his immediate predecessors. His aim was to reproduce each plant from life, and he stated in his dedicatory epistle that this was done for no other reason than that ‘a picture expresses things more surely and fixes them more deeply in the mind than the bare words of the text’. Each illustration was therefore based upon the appearance of the living plant; furthermore, ‘we have not allowed the craftsmen so to indulge their whims as to cause the drawing not to correspond accurately to the truth’. “

Here are the painters “operating” and hopefully not indulging their whims .. Apart from the gender, it could be me, today. It looks such a serene and relaxing art, doesn’t it?.. It isn’t…

But the article goes on to say …
“A labour of love some thirty one years in the making, Fuchs’ lively enthusiasm for his subject is obvious. As he himself stated: ‘there is nothing in this life pleasanter and more delightful than to wander over woods, mountains, plains, garlanded and adorned with flowerlets and plants of various sorts, and most elegant to boot, and to gaze intently on them. But it increases that pleasure and delight not a little, if there be added an acquaintance with the virtues and powers of these same plants’

I suppose that is more or less what I am trying to do with the blog! I must keep this quote to hand so that I am reminded of the joys of “wandering” when the fire ants are biting…30 years though!.. just when I was impressed with myself for having done 9 months
Two more beautiful images from the herbal, the Capsicum Pepper ,

and the strange and wonderful, Carline Thistle.


Balsam Apple

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One Comment

  1. Hi Val:)

    Isnt this a variety of bittergourd? We eat this as curry in India if its the same veggie. I havent heard the name you posted though.

    Loved all the previous sketches too! Esp the necklace plant!

    I had mailed you a few weeks back? did you receive it?


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