Fig Leaf Gourd or Chilacayote, scientifically called as Cucurbita ficifolia is a plant native to Latin America. It is mainly grown for its use as a vegetable and also in the preparation of jams and jellies.
The plant got its common name Fig Leaf gourd as its leaves look similar to those of Fig tree. It also got several other names like Malabar gourd as it is grown in Malabar coast of India, shark fin melon as it is used as a substitute in shark fin soup.
Although the plant is widely grown in Latin American Countries It is also popular in several European and Asian countries.
Fig Leaf gourd
It is a climbing vine that can grow up to 15 meters long. It grows vigorously and forms a great root system. Roots are fibrous and form a network just underneath the soil.
Chilacayote fruits resemble watermelon and look beautiful with their green and white stripes. These fruits contain white colored tough and fibrous flesh inside them with black or grey seeds.
Seeds are usually very flat, oblong and measure about 1.5-2 centimeters long and contain a hard coat around them.
These seeds are a great source of fatty acids and it was found that the fatty acids present were ω6-linoleic acid with about 60% followed by 15% palmitic acid and 14% oleic acid (1).
Propagation, growth, and Development
Chilacayote can be easily propagated by their seeds. However, they can also be propagated vegetatively as they develop roots at their nodes.
Chilacayote seeds have a hard coat around them so if you using seeds for propagation, it is recommended to soak them for few hours before sowing as it helps in easy germination.
Seeds usually germinate in 7 days and these plants do well in soils with a pH range of 6.5-7.5.
Flowering occurs in between a month or two from the time of emergence of the seedling and depends upon various factors. Flowers are unisexual and comes in yellow to orange color. Pollination occurs by insects majorly by bees.
Uses of Chilacayote
Chilacayote is mainly grown for its fruits. Immature fruits are cooked as a vegetable just like other cucumbers and squashes. The tender leaves of the plant are also used as a vegetable in some parts of Africa and South America.
The pulp of matured fruits is used for the preparation of jams, jellies, and candies. Its pulp strands are also used in the preparation of soups and are popular as a substitute in shark fin soup.
When roasted, the Chilacayote seeds have a great taste and are used as a snack just like peanuts. After removing the peel, seeds are roasted and ground into a mixture and is also used in the preparation of various dishes.
The fruits and the seeds are also well known for their nutritious value and numerous health benefits.
In Europe, Fig Leaf Gourd is also used as an ornamental plant.
Health Benefits of Fig Leaf Gourd
Fig Leaf Gourd is packed with nutrients just like other cucurbits and has numerous health benefits. Rich in antioxidants, they are also well known for their anti diabetic and anti inflammatory activity.
Anti Hyperglycemic effect
In Asia, Fig leaf gourd is widely popular for its delicious soup that tastes similar to shark fin soup. People also give high value to this vegetable as it can lower blood sugar levels.
Studies had shown that Chilacayote contains a good amount of D-chiro-inositol, a component of an insulin mediator known to have Antihyperglycemic effect.
Research undertaken to evaluate the anti hyperglycemic effect of D-CI (D-chiro-inositol) present in chilacayote had revealed that oral administration of the fruit extract on streptozotocin-induced diabetic rats had resulted in a significant decrease of blood glucose levels.
The study also compared the effects with the chemically synthesized D-CI and said that Chilacayote can be an effective source of D-CI which may help for diabetes treatment (2).
It may help to control Type 2 Diabetes by increasing Insulin
Chilacayote is used as traditional medicine for type 2 diabetes in some Latin American countries.
Most common conditions that occur in type 2 diabetes are the body fails to produce enough insulin or else it may resist insulin production.
Research had shown that Fig leaf gourd acts as an insulin secreting substance by increasing the calcium ions influx.
Another interesting finding is that the mechanism of producing insulin by Fig leaf gourd is different than that of hypoglycemic drugs available in the market like sulfonylureas. This suggests that Fig leaf gourd may act as a natural resource for agents used to control type 2 diabetes (3).
It may help to control Obesity
Apart from the Antidiabetic activity, Fig leaf gourd may also help in controlling obesity and its consequences.
Adipose tissue plays a major role in obesity, as the differentiation of human mesenchymal stem cells to adipocytes is required for adipose tissue development.
Research conducted using Chilacayote extracts had shown that its chloroform extract had exhibited adipose inhibition significantly and the study had also said that Fig leaf gourd might be used as a food supplement to control obesity and its consequences (4).
It has Antioxidant and Anti Inflammatory Activity
Production of free radicals and pro-inflammatory cytokines are thought to play a major role in the pathogenesis of type 2 diabetes.
Research conducted had shown Figleaf gourd had exhibited anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties by significantly increasing the glutathione, IL-6, IFN-γ and also the cytokine IL-10, that plays a vital role in anti-inflammatory activity (5).
Traditional use of Chilacayote
Chilacayote seeds may also be used as a vermifuge against tapeworms and parasites. Traditionally these seeds along with its husk are ground and made into an emulsion with water and is taken against tapeworms and parasites. However, a purgative should also be taken later to expel those worms.
Young leaves picked up can remain fresh for up to 2days, while immature fruits can be stored for a few weeks. Seeds extracted can be dried and stored for long periods of time. Mature fruits of Chilacayote if stored properly can remain well over a year.