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23rd Annual International

American Society of Botanical Artists at Wave Hill


Bitter Melon

Momordica charantia

As I was slicing the bitter melon and the two halves fell away from each other, I knew in that moment I had to paint it. It was September 2018 and I was helping my mother prepare a family meal, using their home-grown produce. My parents’ garden is full of edible treasures. They grow a variety of vegetables, from familiar staples such as cucumbers and tomatoes to more unusual varieties, such as chayotes, and Thai purple-podded, yard-long beans. Their most exotic crop is the bitter melon, also known as balsam pear or bitter gourd. Friends had given them the seeds after they had been to Taiwan. In Asia, the bitter melon is considered both a food and a medicine. Its name reflects the distinctly bitter taste that can be quite off-putting when eaten for the first time. My mother’s recipe is to hollow out the bitter melon and fill it with a mixture of ground pork, mung bean noodles, coriander, soy sauce and pepper. The stuffed melon is then slowly braised in a homemade chicken broth. 


This member of the Cucurbitaceae family is an elegant, tropical vine with deeply lobed palmate leaves that release a pungent odor if bruised. The diminutive male and female flowers are yellow and fragrant. The warty, oblong fruit hangs amidst the leaves like piñatas. Its light green skin, when young, turns to a very pale yellow when it is ready to be harvested. However, if left to over-ripen, the fruit changes to a dark yellow/orange color. When cut open, the cross-section reveals the nearly white lumpy rind that harbors fleshy, moist, bright red arils, reminiscent of silkworm cocoons which, like nesting dolls, hide the unique and bizarre-looking seeds. This plant had exactly the type of complex textured surface I find so challenging and rewarding to draw and paint. I knew I wanted the cross-section of the fruit to be the focal point but was overwhelmed by the infinite possibilities for the composition. 


Later that Fall, at the ASBA Annual Conference in St. Louis, I attended a lecture and tribute to the late Pandora Sellars given by Margaret Best. As slides of her work scrolled by, I was struck by Pandora’s impeccable technical skills and fearless approach to composition. I admired how she used leaves as backdrop to highlight important elements of her paintings. I immediately envisioned the bitter melon’s yellow flowers and fruits against a lush layer of dark green leaves. Back in Ottawa at my drawing table, after playing with my sketches, the various components of the final piece came together. I realized without a doubt I had found a worthy subject to occupy my thoughts while I painted in my studio during the shortening days leading to winter. 


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23rd annual-PHOMACHA

Momordica charantia

Bitter Melon

Watercolor on paper

16-1/2 x 14-3/4 inches

©2019 Sengmany Phommachakr

2024 ASBA - All rights reserved

All artwork copyrighted by the artist. Copying, saving, reposting, or republishing of artwork prohibited without express permission of the artist.

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