Traditional Medicine: Momordica charantia

By Ina Vandebroek

Sep 21 2020

Momordica charantia L. is a plant species that is used in the traditional medicine of Latino, Hispanic and Caribbean communities. It is known by many common names: Cundeamor (Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela); cerasee (Jamaica); associ, sorossie, asorosi (Haiti); Pepino cimarrón (Mexico); sorosí (Costa Rica, Guatemala); and calaica (Honduras)

The World Health Organization defines traditional medicine (TM) as “the sum total of the knowledge, skill, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness” (World Health Organization, 2019). To date, TM is still the healthcare option of necessity or choice for many communities around the world, including Latino and Hispanic communities in their homelands and the diaspora (Vandebroek and Balick, 2012). This traditional knowledge belongs to the intellectual property of these communities and merits recognition and preservation as their intangible biocultural heritage. 

In New York City, Momordica charantia can be found cultivated in community gardens in Caribbean and Latino or Hispanic neighborhoods. The species is also sold in Botánica shops. These are common stores in many Latino and Hispanic communities around the world that sell medicinal plants and religious goods, including candles, perfumes, and statues of Saints.

The New York Botanical Garden has an active research program in Caribbean ethnobotany and ethnomedicine that studies the traditional knowledge and use of plants as foods and medicines by several Caribbean and Latino communities in New York City, including people born in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and Mexico. The program began collaborating with the Dominican community in New York City two decades ago. In 2005, Garden researchers conducted a survey through in-person interviews with 175 New Yorkers born in the Dominican Republic. By interviewing a large number of people, patterns in the use of medicinal plants emerge, and health conditions that are popularly treated with specific plants by that particular community can be identified. Our survey identified the popular use of Momordica charantia as a tea for diabetes, owing to its bitter taste which is believed to decrease blood sugar, and its application to the skin for fungal skin problems and rash.

Precautions: Momordica charantia has a widespread use as a vegetable and medicine. However, one must always keep in mind that the difference between a poison and a medicine is in the dose, the frequency of use, the preparation and/or the administration of a plant remedy. For Momordica charantia, some side effects and safety issues have been observed in the scientific literature. Traditional medicine is based on the longstanding cultural use of a plant species, and people should not experiment with plant remedies on their own, but always consult with a qualified specialist or health professional before use. In addition, some people may show adverse reactions or allergies to a plant species. The use of Momordica charantia together with diabetes medication may increase the effect of these drugs. No negative effects on fertility have thus far been reported in humans, however the Caribbean pharmacopeia recommends against the use of Momordica charantia during pregnancy, due to the risk of abortion, and cautions against its internal use during breastfeeding, and by children under 3 years of age (TRAMIL, 2016).

A Closer Look


TRAMIL (2016). Caribbean pharmacopeia. Momordica charantia. Accessed 10 September 2020 at

Vandebroek, I., Balick, M.J. (2012). Globalization and loss of plant knowledge: Challenging the paradigm. PLOS One 7: 5,  

World Health Organization (2019). WHO global report on traditional and complementary medicine 2019. Geneva, Switzerland. Accessed on 27 August 2020 at