Trichosanthes cucumerina (PROTA)

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Plant Resources of Tropical Africa
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Trichosanthes cucumerina L.

Protologue: Sp. pl. 2: 1008 (1753).
Family: Cucurbitaceae
Chromosome number: 2n = 22


Trichosanthes anguina L. (1753).

Vernacular names

Snake gourd, snake tomato (En). Patole, concombre-serpent, serpent végétal (Fr). Abóbora serpente, quiabo de metro (Po).

Origin and geographic distribution

The genus Trichosanthes is native to southern and eastern Asia, Australia and islands of the western Pacific. Trichosanthes cucumerina is found wild throughout these areas. It was probably domesticated in ancient times in India, from where non-bitter and large-fruited types may have migrated to other tropical areas. It is grown as a minor vegetable in many countries of tropical Asia. It is locally grown as a vegetable in home gardens in Africa, where it has been recorded from several countries and probably occurs in many more. Commercial growers around big cities in East Africa occasionally grow cultivars of snake gourd imported from India for people of Indian origin.


Immature fruits, and more rarely young shoots and leaves of snake gourd are used as cooked vegetables. In some types all plant parts have an unpleasant odour that disappears upon cooking. Young fruits may be somewhat bitter but this also disappears during cooking. The bitterness of the fruits increases with maturity. The fully mature fruit contains a soft, red, tomato-like pulp that is used in stews or sauces as a substitute for tomato puree or paste. However, people prefer true tomato because of the astringent acidic taste of snake gourd pulp. The use of snake gourd as a replacement for tomato is reported from Sierra Leone, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Benin and Nigeria.

The mature fruit has been reported as purgative. An infusion of the young shoot is mildly aperient, the leaf sap is emetic and the seeds are anthelmintic and antiperiodic. The plants are also grown in compounds as a dual purpose vegetable and ornamental for the white, fringed flowers, fragrant at night, and the decorative fruits.

Production and international trade

In West Africa young fruits and pulp of mature fruits are sometimes traded on local markets, but in most places snake gourd is only produced for own consumption. Mauritius produces about 700 t snake gourd fruit per year and exports 2–3 t. No other data on production and trade in Africa are known. In India, snake gourd is a rather important market vegetable, especially in the south. The cultivation of the plant for fruit pulp production is increasing and is spreading widely along the coast of West Africa.


The nutritive value of immature fruits of snake gourd per 100 g edible portion (94%) is: water 92.9 g, energy 89 kJ (21 kcal), protein 0.5 g, fat 0.3 g, carbohydrate 4.1 g, fibre 1.7 g, Ca 26 mg, P 20 mg, Fe 0.3 mg, thiamin 0.04 mg, riboflavin 0.06 mg, niacin 0.3 mg, folate 15 μg, ascorbic acid trace (Holland, B., Unwin, I.D. & Buss, D.H., 1991). No data are available on the composition of the red fruit pulp and the leaves.

A galactose-specific lectin with agglutination activity is present in the seeds. The seeds also contain a ribosome-inactivating protein (trichoanguin). The chloroform extract of Trichosanthes cucumerina roots showed significant antibacterial activity against Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and seed extracts showed nematicidal activity.

Adulterations and substitutes

The young fruits can be replaced by other cucurbits such as squash (Cucurbita pepo L.), bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria (Molina) Standl.) or ridged gourd (Luffa acutangula (L.) Roxb.).


Monoecious annual herb, climbing by 2–3-branched tendrils; stem slender, 5-angled. Leaves alternate, simple; stipules absent; petiole 2–10 cm long, furrowed, succulent, scabrid hairy; blade slightly to deeply 5–7-lobed, 7–25 cm × 8–20 cm, cordate at base, margin dentate, pubescent. Flowers unisexual, regular, 5-merous, white; calyx tubular; corolla lobes fringed with hairlike outgrowths; male flowers in 5–many-flowered axillary racemes on 10–30 cm long peduncles, with 3 stamens; female flowers solitary and sessile, with inferior, 1-celled ovary, long-hairy, stigmas 3. Fruit a very slender, long and cylindrical berry, often twisted, 30–180 cm × 2–10 cm, greenish-white when immature, dark red when mature, many-seeded. Seeds flattened, 1–1.5 cm long, greyish-brown, sculptured, margin undulate. Seedling with epigeal germination.

Other botanical information

The genus Trichosanthes comprises about 100 species, of which a few have been domesticated in Asia, snake gourd being the most important. Two varieties are distinguished within Trichosanthes cucumerina: the wild var. cucumerina occurring from India, Sri Lanka and China, through South-East Asia, to northern Australia, and the cultivated var. anguina (L.) Haines with its elongated fruits. Only traditional landraces of Trichosanthes cucumerina are used in West and Central Africa, whereas improved cultivars from India are grown in East Africa.

Growth and development

Flowering starts 5–6 weeks after emergence of the seedling. Male flowers appear first followed by female ones 3 days later. The flowers open in the evening or in the early morning. Anthers dehisce several hours before anthesis, stigmas are receptive from a few hours before anthesis to a few hours after. Pollination is effected by insects, including bees, wasps, ants, butterflies and moths. The fruits can be harvested 2–3 months after sowing or planting and the harvest may continue for 2 months.


Wild snake gourd grows in scrub vegetation, along forest edges and in open forest, from sea-level to 1500 m altitude. Snake gourd is well adapted to the humid tropical lowlands. The optimum average day temperature for growth is 30–35°C with a minimum of 20°C. It does not tolerate dry soil and requires a good moisture reserve in the soil. However, it is sensitive to waterlogging.

Propagation and planting

Seeds of snake gourd are dried after removal from the mature fruits. They are recalcitrant. The seeds are sown in planting holes or on ridges 100–150 cm apart and 60–75 cm between plants, requiring 4–6 kg seed per ha. Alternative to this direct sowing method, seeds can be raised in the nursery and seedlings transplanted to the field when they have 2 true leaves. However, farmers prefer direct sowing because of the delicate character of the plant.


In peri-urban market gardening, snake gourd is trained along poles or trellises, and in home gardens the plants are allowed to trail over a wall or fence. When the fruits start developing, a stone or other weight is attached to the apex of each fruit in order to produce straight fruits. Snake gourd responds well to manuring and fertilizer application, but caution should be taken not to apply too much nitrogenous fertilizer as this leads to excessive stem production at the expense of fruit production. In areas where seasonal moisture stress is experienced, there is a need for irrigation.

Diseases and pests

Downy mildew (Pseudoperonospora cubensis) and anthracnose (Colletotrichum lagenarium) attack immature and mature fruits. They are controlled by removal of the attacked fruits and by spraying of fungicide, e.g maneb. Snake gourd is susceptible to damage by root-knot nematodes. It is attacked by several insects, including Bactrocera and Dacus fruit flies, Diaphania caterpillars, Lasioptera gall midges and Bemisia white flies, but information on the extent of damage and measures of control are lacking especially for Africa.


Fruits are picked when still immature about 2 weeks after fruit set, when they are 30–60 cm in length, or up to 1 m depending on the cultivar, and may weigh up to 1 kg. When fruit pulp production is the objective of cultivation, the harvest of the fruits takes place at full maturity. The same ripe fruits may be used for seed extraction.


Landraces produce 6–10 fruits per plant, improved cultivars up to 50. The total yield of young fruits ranges from 8–10 t/ha. If ripe fruits of about 1 kg are harvested, a yield of up to 30 t/ha is reported.

Handling after harvest

The young fruits store well for 10–14 days at a temperature of about 15°C and high humidity.

Genetic resources

Germplasm collections are available at genebanks at NACGRAB, Ibadan, Nigeria, at Kerala Agricultural University, Thrissur, India, at NPGRL-IPB, Los Baños, Philippines, and at Cornell University, New York, United States.


Breeding work has been performed by Indian seed companies, selecting for high yield, good fruit quality and disease resistance. Efforts are needed to breed for increasing the female to male flower ratio. There is also need to breed for fruit pulp with less astringent acidic taste.


Trichosanthes cucumerina is a newly introduced crop of increasing importance in several parts of Africa, including Ghana and Nigeria, mainly for the red fruit pulp as a substitute for tomato sauce. There are no indications that the consumption of young snake gourd fruits will become of great importance in Africa.

Major references

  • Bates, D.M., Robinson, R.W. & Jeffrey, C. (Editors), 1990. Biology and utilization of the Cucurbitaceae. Cornell University Press, New York, United States. 485 pp.
  • Burkill, H.M., 1985. The useful plants of West Tropical Africa. 2nd Edition. Volume 1, Families A–D. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 960 pp.
  • Chow, L.P., Chou, M.H., Ho, C.Y., Chuang, C.C., Pan, F.M., Wu, S.H. & Lin, J.Y., 1999. Purification, characterization and molecular cloning of trichoanguin, a novel type I ribosome inactivating protein from the seeds of Trichosanthes anguina. Biochemical Journal 338: 211–219.
  • Gildemacher, B.H., Jansen, G.J. & Chayamarit, K., 1993. Trichosanthes L. In: Siemonsma, J.S. & Kasem Piluek (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 8. Vegetables. Pudoc Scientific Publishers, Wageningen, Netherlands. pp. 271–274.
  • Robinson, R.W. & Decker-Walters, D.S., 1997. Cucurbits. CAB International, Wallingford, United Kingdom. 226 pp.

Other references

  • Adebisi, A.A. & Ladipo, D.O., 2000. Evaluation of the utilization spectrum of some Cucurbits in South West Nigeria. CENRAD Development Series 07. CENRAD, Ibadan, Nigeria. 14 pp.
  • Choudhury, B., 1967. Vegetables. India, the land and the people. National Book Trust, New Delhi, India. 214 pp.
  • Desphande, A.A., Bankapur, V.M. & Ventkatasubbaiah, K.A., 1980. Studies on floral biology of snake gourd (Trichosanthes anguina L.) and ash gourd (Benincasa hispida (Thunb.) Logn. Mysore Journal of Agricultural Science 14: 8–10.
  • Dupriez, H. & De Leener, P., 1989. African gardens and orchards, growing vegetables and fruits. MacMillan Press, London, United Kingdom. 333 pp.
  • Grubben, G.J.H., 1967. Rapport sur les cultures légumières de la Côte d’Ivoire. Mission FAO, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. 81 pp.
  • Rugayah & de Wilde, W.J.J.O., 1999. Conspectus of Trichosanthes (Cucurbitaceae) in Malesia. Reinwardtia 11(4): 227–280.
  • Soladoye, M.O., 1985. A checklist of Nigeria cucurbits (family Cucurbitaceae). Research paper, Forest Series No 56. Forestry Research Institute of Nigeria, Ibadan, Nigeria. 13 pp.

Sources of illustration

  • Gildemacher, B.H., Jansen, G.J. & Chayamarit, K., 1993. Trichosanthes L. In: Siemonsma, J.S. & Kasem Piluek (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 8. Vegetables. Pudoc Scientific Publishers, Wageningen, Netherlands. pp. 271–274.


  • M.O. Soladoye

P.O. Box 2029, Dugbe, Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria

  • A.A. Adebisi

Centre for Environment, Renewable Natural Resources Management, Research and Development (CENRAD), P.M.B. 5052, Jericho Hills, Ibadan, Nigeria

Correct citation of this article

Soladoye, M.O. & Adebisi, A.A., 2004. Trichosanthes cucumerina L. [Internet] Record from PROTA4U. Grubben, G.J.H. & Denton, O.A. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. <>.

Accessed 8 July 2021.