Do you know the Kiwano, botanical name Cucumis metulifer? It is a plant of the Cucurbitaceae family, a close cousin of the cucumber and native to sub-Saharan Africa. Sometimes called “Horned Melon”, “Horned Cucumber” or even “Métulon”, it is a vegetable-fruit with an unusual appearance and a complex and confusing exotic taste that simultaneously reminiscent of melon, banana, kiwi and pineapple.
It is a very popular fruit in the regions of Africa where it grows wild, as well as in New Zealand where it has been widely cultivated for almost 25 years. In addition, the term “Kiwano” popularized in Europe was initially a registered trademark in New Zealand and has since fallen into the public domain.
In France, the Kiwano was first grown in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris in 1838, but ignorance of its use, only the decorative side had tempted! Today theThe Kiwano is emerging from obscurity and is gaining popularity due to its unique taste, as well as its recently discovered health-promoting properties. The pinnacle of happiness for us gardeners, it is easy to grow in our latitudes, just like a simple cucumber!
The Kiwano in Africa: Food, Medicine and Magic!
In Africa, the species Cucumis metulifer grows in the wild from south of the Sahara to Namibia, Botswana and South Africa, reaching an altitude of about 1800 meters. The fruits of this plant have been used by locals for thousands of years and are traditionally eaten raw or roasted. The leaves can also be eaten cooked like spinach. In parts of Africa, Kiwano is one of the most important wild food sources. And in the Kalahari Desert (the largest and driest desert area in the world), the wild fruit, along with the wild cucumber (Acanthosicyos naudinianus), is the only source of water available during the drought period.
In addition to the food side, the Kiwao is also considered by a number of African peoples as an eminently ritual and magical plant, especially to protect themselves against evil spirits. In Benin, the Kiwano is considered a magical fruit as well as therapeutic; after being soaked in palm wine, it is used to fight smallpox during voodoo sessions! Finally, recent scientific research has shown that Kiwano contains anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer components. Between 2008 and 2015, a series of studies were conducted that demonstrated the plant’s many medicinal properties. In 2015, the American journal “Cancer Biology” published an article summarizing the main medicinal properties of this African species.
How to properly grow, harvest and eat Kiwano?
The Kiwano is grown just like the “classic” cucumber. Sowing is done within 3 to 6 weeks before transplanting into the ground. At a temperature above 20°C, the seeds germinate in a few days. Transplanting is done when there is no longer a fear of frost, usually after mid-May. Plant the Kiwano plants in a sunny spot, in rich soil, to support the plant as it is a climber.
The total breeding cycle is 3 to 4 months. The fruits are harvested 30 to 40 days after pollination, depending on climatic conditions and regions. The main feature that announces the ripeness of this fruiting vegetable is its color which tends to an orange hue when ready to be eaten. It is a very fertile variety: a plant can produce more than fifty fruits of 150 to 200 grams.
Kiwano fruits contain very juicy flesh, a refreshing jelly that envelops the many edible seeds. They are eaten slightly unripe like cucumbers, which gives them the taste. And they also taste perfectly ripe, they have a complex taste between melon and banana, or even an aftertaste of kiwi and pineapple. Halved and eaten with a teaspoon or poured into fruit salads, smoothies or sorbets as you would passion fruit. In Africa, and particularly Zimbabwe, the young leaves are harvested from the stems to be cooked like spinach and eaten with peanut butter. The San of the Kalahari (indigenous people of southern Africa) enjoy the fruits in roasted form.
As a landscape architect and geographer by training, I am passionate about the plant world and its countless curiosities. Founder of the Rexania blog and activist for gardening in harmony with nature, I am also an Alsatian gardener, ardent defender of ancient, free and reproducible varieties.