Momordica charantia was first identified as escaping cultivation in 1993 (Maguire & Hammer letter). Initially seen mostly in disturbed areas, the list of vouchered specimens has expanded to 30 Florida counties as of 2013 (http://florida.plantatlas.usf.edu/). Its range extends through central and south Florida (south of Putnam and Pasco counties), and hops across the panhandle into Leon and Escambia counties. This vine is in the cucumber family and originates from the Old World tropics in Africa. Label data from vouchered specimens describe it as covering shrubs, and comingling with rare air plants in tall trees. It grows in sunny areas along ditch banks, firebreaks, and fence lines, but is also a bane to land managers in restoration areas as it spreads through tree gaps after prescribed burns and invasive plant removal. The vines compete with native vegetation as groundcover and can form dense thickets.
Increased occurrence records and comments from land managers resulted in Category II invasive plant status in 2013.
Plant communities where balsam pear has been observed include: scrub, maritime and mesic hammocks, pinelands, beach dune, coastal strand, shell midden, wet flatwoods, floodplain swamp and edges of freshwater swamps. This pioneer species gets shaded out in intact mature hammocks. The fruits and leaves are used medicinally but the seeds are toxic. Because exposed seeds have a bright red aril, balsam pear is likely dispersed by mammals and birds. Sometimes called “stink vine,” the unpleasant smell from handling the plant washes off with water.
Text by Chris Lockhart (firstname.lastname@example.org). Photo by Patricia Howell (email@example.com).
View the herbarium specimen image from the University of Florida Herbarium Digital Imaging Projects.
From New Species for the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council’s 2013 List of Invasive Plant Species, Wildland Weeds, Spring 2014, Supplement 1—Online Only—www.fleppc.org