August 15, 2020

Salad, Pickles, or Skyscrapers?

What looks like an elongated watermelon, is shorter than my index finger, and is sometimes referred to as a perennial cucumber? If you know the answer, then you may be from the Indian subcontinent where it is grown and eaten widely. Its scientific name is Coccinia grandis, but we generally call it tindora or ivy gourd in Florida.

By way of introduction, tindora is juicy and crunchy like a cucumber. It is a bit more crisp and tart with a stronger overall flavor. Unlike a cucumber, tindora stands up well to cooking. It doesn't turn to mush and it retains its color. The plant is quite handsome with its graceful, curling tendrils and ivy-like leaves. Different parts of the plant have medicinal properties that are still being explored by modern science. Finally, in the right climate, a tindora vine is easy to grow, albeit with a few important caveats. 

Before going any further, it is important to note that I grow a sterile variety of tindora. Thank you Andy F, plant expert and collector extraordinaire, for introducing me to tindora and giving me a sterile plant. The seeds do not germinate. Although new roots may grow where the vine touches the ground, birds do not distribute viable seeds, because there aren't any. I understand that varieties with viable seeds are an invasive problem in other areas. I only recommend the sterile cultivars. 

Before planting tindora, you'll need to provide a trellis for it to grow on. Left to its own devices, I have seen my vines spread out 30 feet in many directions. I have no doubt that it would have continued growing had I let it. A trellis will help you keep the plant where you want it. My trellis is over 6 feet tall. I wouldn't use anything shorter for tindora. Make sure to leave a couple of feet of empty space around the trellis so that its reaching vines don't find a tree, bush, or shed to latch on to. It is not picky about soil, as long as it is well-drained. If it's not raining regularly during times of growth, the plant will do better with some irrigation. The vine that I grow does not need a male companion plant to set fruit. It does need full sun to be most productive. In the subtropical area where I live, the leaves, flowers, and fruit take off during the spring and slow down in the fall.

Harvesting is where things get interesting.  When young, the fruit is green. It is hard to find amongst the green leaves, but when you find a nice big one, there are likely to be a line of them. They make a nice, crisp addition to salads. You can also add them to a stir fry or a curry dish. As the fruit ages it turns red from the inside out. It also softens up, and the flavor becomes increasingly bland. But you can't determine any of this until you cut it open. With younger tindora, it's always a surprise inside - will it be green or red? crisp or soft? strong-flavored or bland? Within days, the outside of the fruit starts turning a bright red; the fruit becomes eminently squishable, and almost sweet. With just a few of these older tindora, you can add a bit of red color to a smoothie. If you chop it up and cook with it, it will maintain its beautiful red color, brightening up whatever you add it to. Tindora brings a vegetal diversity to the kitchen.

Since tindora is commonly eaten in Indian cuisine, it seems appropriate to provide basic directions for a spicy tindora stir fry.  Heat a teaspoon or two of oil in a frying pan. Mix in mustard powder, turmeric powder, chili pepper, and salt in amounts based on your particular taste preferences. Fry on medium/low heat for a minute or two. Cut a cup or two of tindora in half length-wise, add them to the oil, and simmer for another ten minutes. Mix in some grated coconut, lemon juice, and nuts. Cook for another minute. I always substitute key lime for lemon, because that's what I grow. If you have fresh turmeric root, fresh chilies, and/or whole mustard seeds, use those instead for a brighter flavor. You'll notice that I don't include exact measurements. When you are cooking from the garden, you don't always have an exact amount of each ingredient. If you have lots of tindora, cook lots of it. If you just harvested some fresh ginger root, make a ginger tindora stir fry.

Tindora and sunflower seeds on a bed of edible hibiscus leaves

Tindora is used widely in traditional medicine. It is considered antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antitussive, and antihypoglycemic, to name just a few of its manifold properties. All parts of the plant are used medicinally. A review of tindora's chemical constituents, geographical distribution, medicinal properties, and pharmacological activities gives a sense of the breadth and depth of its uses. As with most plants, its therapeutic efficacy has not been confirmed in controlled scientific studies. 

Tindora pickles are popular with our guests.  They
are appreciated for their crunchy bite and small size.

I have been growing tindora for seven years now, and I only just discovered this morning that the leaves are edible. Evidently, in some parts of the world, it is actually grown for its young shoots. This is awesome, because the plant produces a massive abundance of leaves and is evergreen year round where I live. I keep my tindora trimmed, but if I wanted more leafy greens for a salad, I could give it another trellis to climb on. But I'm getting ahead of myself. My sweetheart, who has more gregarious taste buds, tasted it first. He thought it tasted great. Unfortunately, it did not pass the initial taste test for the person who prepares salads in this household. It's not quite bitter, but the flavor is just too strong for me. I plan to experiment with it in tiny quantities in the kitchen.

Sap oozing from freshly picked fruit
Many of the summer fruits and vegetables I grow exude sap, when picked, peeled, or cut. Tindora fruit falls into this category. Happily, it is not a sap that irritates my skin. Rather, it creates a very fine film that sticks with solid determination. It leaves a coating on my hand that eventually vanishes, but not quite soon enough. It turns out that many members of the cucurbit family exhibit this behavior, including butternut squash, pumpkins, zucchini, and cucumbers. It is their way of healing a wound. If the fruit is damaged, this sap will harden, sealing off the exposed flesh in order to prevent further damage. To avoid this situation entirely, I generally harvest tindora wearing waterproof gloves. Problem solved. As I pick the tindora fruit, I place them in a cardboard box that I eventually recycle, but never have to clean. In the kitchen, I rinse the knife I use to slice tindora immediately, so that the goo washes away before it has a chance to harden. I encourage any materials engineers who may be reading this article to investigate the use of cucurbit sap or its constituents as a component in biodegradable glue. This sap could be the basis of the biodegradable skyscrapers of tomorrow.

Over the last week, I harvested the tindora twice. I noticed a lot of insect activity on the vines. There were wasps stopping here and there. There were quite a few honeybees. This is unsurprising as we have several beehives on the property. What was surprising is where the bees were hanging out. Generally, bees go straight for the flowers. They collect pollen and avoid any other distractions. But on the tindora, they were walking around on the leaves. But why? Having a beekeeper at home means that I always have somebody at the ready to answer such pressing bee-related questions. My sweetheart theorizes that there may be something the leaf exudes that the honeybees bring back to the hive to create propolis. To quote him, "Propolis is the immune system of the hive." Propolis is also called 'bee glue'. One of the uses bees make of bee glue is to inhibit fungal and bacterial growth. This sounds similar to some of the ways people use tindora medicinally. Perhaps the wound-healing tindora sap is used to create their bee glue. You heard it here first!

Tindora tendrils reaching

There are some potential pitfalls to be avoided when growing and harvesting tindora.

  1. Before planting, check to see if tindora is considered invasive in your area. In Florida, it is not (2017).
  2. An aggressive climber, a tindora vine will readily grow over and cover trees and bushes. Keep them trimmed! One year, I was out of town for five weeks and returned to find a tindora vine sneaking up the backside of the carport about to expand over the solar collectors sitting on the roof.
  3. Assuming you don't want additional tindora vines, watch out for new tindora plants that have taken root near existing plants. They send down a relatively deep taproot, which is easier to dig out when they are just getting started. 
  4. Look out for pickleworm (Diaphania nitidalis) and other pests. If I chose to treat the pickleworm, I would be harvesting at least 1000 tindora each year. I don't need anywhere near that many. I am happy to let the pickleworms have their share.
  5. Since the tindora fruit are small and hide behind leaves, they take more time to pick than larger vegetables. Plan accordingly.

In Florida, tindora are much easier to grow than cucumbers. It does have some of the same pests as cucumber, but it requires less water, is somewhat tolerant of drought, doesn't mind poor soils, doesn't get powdery mildew, produces fruit during the summer, likes the hot weather, and is a perennial. It provides an opportunity to harvest both fruit and greens. For the careful gardener, a sterile tindora may be both a collectible curiosity and a serious producer. 

For my friends in colder regions: Although most productive in a hot and humid climate, tindora is recommended for USDA Zones 8-11. In those zones, if your tindora experiences a freeze, the plant will likely die back and then return the next spring. The tubers are quite hardy and transplant well. In colder zones, consider digging up a tuber with a couple of leaves left in place and transplanting to a container for overwintering inside.  It should continue to grow slowly even in lower-light conditions. Then plant it back in the ground once all danger of frost has passed.

Dig out tuber with roots, transplant in container, leave three leaves, and overwinter indoors

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