When I was a little girl growing up in Jamaica, my Granny would always send me out to gather various plants for her latest "Bush Remedy". Perhaps my favorite one of all is the wildly rampant Cerassee plant with its unruly nature, resilient vines, and wanton disregard for people's properties. I am highly offended when people call this a “weed” & hack it to bits. Perhaps it reminds me of my own misunderstood “rebellious” nature, or my ability to claim as home wherever I am planted. Either way, if you mention Cerassee to most people (and especially non-Jamaicans) you will get an earful about this pesky "weed" that never dies & spreads like wildfire. It gets ripped off of fences and trees that it uses as a trellis, with no regard to the wonderful healing properties it possesses. My mother to this day still tells the story of how I was the only one who could find the plant when it was needed as medicine or tea. Most of us from the Caribbean will probably make a face when we describe the taste, yet in the same breath we will extol its many benefits in healing and preventing disease. This sentiment is echoed from people from the Mediterranean, Asia, the Caribbean & Africa.
Medicinal Uses of Cerassee:
◦ Cerassee (aka Mamordica Charantia) has a very distinctive smell (which I absolutely adore!), is very bitter tasting, and its leaves are used to make a tea that can treat digestive symptoms, worms, and diabetes, and purify the blood amongst other things. It is rich in Vitamin A, C, phosphorous, calcium & iron. Research is being done to look at enzymes found in the leaves that are said to help treat cancer (Tabata K, et al. “Kuguaglycoside C, A Constituent of Mamordica Charantia, Induces Caspase-independent Cell Death of Neuroblastoma Cells.” Cancer Sci. 2012 Dec; 103(12):2153-8).
◦ Muddle the leaves and use it to bathe/scrub the skin and assist healing of rashes like measles, scabies and eczema.
◦ The plant bears an orangey-yellow pod-like fruit that will burst open when ripe to reveal these little red berries that are surprisingly sweet to taste. We will pop a pod & slurp all the pulp off the red berries as the Elders always said they’re good for your bones & eyes (“So you see Cerassee”). Osteoporosis is not very common in our elders in Jamaica because of this very fact.
◦ You can take the pulpy red fruit & mix it with a little almond oil to use as a balm for chapped hands or burns.
◦ Part of our “wash-out” (i.e. laxative) routine in the islands is a cup of strong Cerassee tea before going to bed. You will be in the bathroom the next day - trust me - so make no travel plans that take you too far from a toilet. Expect to detox in a way like you will never believe and will always remember. When we were kids, my cousins & I all had to stand in a line & swig a shot of this bitter concoction one day a week as part of our medicine for playing in the dirt (“worms”) and maintaining health “(Drink di ting man! It good fah yuh!”), knowing full well we’d be in the bathroom all day next day.
Chinese Medicine Perspective:
◦ In TCM, the energetic properties of Mamordica (the Bitter Melon version, aka Ku Gua Gan) are: bitter in taste (halloooo!) and cold in flavor, and this herb is used to “clear the Liver & clear Summer Heat”.
◦ Channels: Stomach, Spleen
Culinary Uses of Cerassee:
◦ The pod when still green can be chopped up & sautéed as a vegetable (much like you would with bell peppers), and is often used in Asian dishes. There is a species of Mamordica that produces long lumpy, cucumber like fruits more popularly known as "Bitter Melon" which my Indian & Philippino friends cook up in their dishes. They usually chop it up into bite-sized pieces & soak in a little salted water to take out some of the bitterness before sautéing or stir-frying as a veggie dish. The Cerassee plant has sweet fruits whereas the fruit of the Bitter Melon is really bitter.
◦ Here’s a cool recipe: next time you make chicken or meat stew, take some Cerassee leaves, smash ‘em & mix with ground peanuts and a little honey to make as an exotic flavoring to add to your sauce. Or try adding the chopped up green pod to your soups. Stuff ‘em, like you would a squash. Or cook up with some curry & serve with a dollop of yoghurt to balance the flavors.
◦ Make a cup of Cerassee tea (steep leaves in hot water for about 5-10 minutes), add to a gallon of water, & sip throughout the day, much like you would with iced tea or lemonade (just a healthier version). You can find packets of Cerassee tea leaves in culturally diverse stores in your neighborhood or online. I personally just drink it straight - First I have a conversation with myself that goes something like this: “Take it like a woman!”, then I make a couple ‘Hail Mary’ crosses, several pleading rolling of the eyes up to the Heavens to remind my Granny that I sometimes follow orders, then I pause for a second before glugging it down as fast as I can. This is then followed by a quick shuffle of the feet, several kicks, a vigorous shudder, making the ugliest face I could ever possibly make, and yelling "Blech!" as loudly as I can. This is my healing dance, and the more dramatic it is, the better the effect at making the people around you admire how brave you are for taking such a potion. This ritual is also easier to do if you don’t add any sweeteners. If you’re new to this then I would suggest adding a little bit of honey or something non-artificial to buffer the taste (WUSS!).
◦ It is contraindicated in pregnancy as it has weak uterine stimulant properties.
And there ya have it! Cerassee & Bitter Melon – an acquired taste for sure, but certainly 1 of my favorite premier “weeds”. If nothing else, it will make a great living fence. Until next time, Happy Weeding, Happy Healing!
Audrey Steele, L.Ac