It's hard to find someone who doesn't appreciate the cute factor of mouse melons. Also known as Mexican gherkins, the fruit of Melothria scabra looks like watermelons shrunk for a dollhouse tea party. Each is the size of a grape, speckled white with green striations.
Raw, the mouse melons have the taste and crunch of a fresh cucumber but with a burst of bright sour lemon from the skin. They are conversation pieces when used in salads, stir-fries, desserts or martinis. And they make wonderful bread-and-butter pickles.
Mouse melons are in the same family as cucumbers but originated in Mexico and Central America, not in India, like most familiar members of the Cucurbitaceae family. In Mexico they're called sandita, little watermelon.
Although slow to get going, mouse melons eventually vine 10 or more feet in the air with support once they're established, putting out bright green leaves, little yellow flowers and hundreds of fruit. They are relatively drought-tolerant and more resistant to the pests and diseases that plague cucumbers: powdery mildew, white flies, aphids.
It's a perennial if given the chance, and it becomes more prolific after the first year. It won't cross-breed with its domesticated cousins. Its natural tendency is to wander on the ground like a squash, but training the vines vertically will produce more fruit, farther from the reach of some pests.
Gina Thomas at the Wattles Farm community garden had her mouse melons going up a small tepee for support, but she is replacing that with an arbor.
"It's an arch, and the gherkins will hang down like little green lanterns," she said. "It's a beautiful leaf. The whole vine is very dainty looking. They don't need a heavy trellis."
Mouse melon plants may be hard to find in nurseries, but seeds are easy to obtain. Among the sources: Territorial Seed, which sells the mouse melons in conjunction with author Amy Stewart's book "The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World's Great Drinks."
The seeds should be planted blunt edge down in compost-rich soil. They may take as long as 10 days to germinate. They can be grown in containers, and given their propensity to vine and their thick foliage, they make an ideal balcony plant if protected from high winds.
The Global Garden, our series looking at multicultural L.A. through the lens of its landscapes, usually appears here on Tuesdays.