"Watermelon is the chief of this world's luxuries, king by the grace of God over all the fruits of the earth. When one has tasted it, he knows what the angels eat." – Mark Twain
Watermelon may be one of the most recognized and loved summer “fruits”, from ice- filled livestock tanks chilling them at a summer BBQ to the sweet juice running down your chin to seeing who can spit seeds the furthest, yes, watermelon is a summer hit!
The watermelon (Citrullus lanatus ), a member of the Cucurbitaceae family (cucumber, squash, pumpkin, and muskmelon), was thought to have originated in southern Africa for years. It was thought that a drought-tolerant plant, the exact identity is unknown, used by the indigenous peoples of the Kalahari Desert was where today’s watermelon came from. Although this plant was prized for its water storage capabilities, its flesh was pale green, hard, and very bitter. The common thought was that these plants made their way to Egypt, where they were cultivated more than 4000 years ago, and it was here that the improvements began which led to our modern watermelon. Or maybe not.
Horticulturist Harry Paris at the Agricultural Research Organization in Israel, one of the leading experts on the history of the watermelon, has a different conclusion. He blames years, well more like generations, of taxonomists muddling up the melon’s classification for the confusion over its origin. Even the name Citrullus lanatus is misleading as lanatus means “hairy”, this name was given to the melon by a student of Carl Linneaus about 150 years ago when he came across the fuzzy citron melon in a market near Cape Town, South Africa. Farming had not yet begun in southern Africa at the time Egypt was cultivating watermelons around 4000BC, giving more doubt to the idea of a southern Africa origin. Another candidate was the egusi melon from western Africa which was only grown for its seeds, not its flesh. According to Paris, the best candidate was a wild melon growing in Sudan known as gurum and in Egypt as gurma, both of which are hard melons with very bitter flesh.
In an article published in Smithsonian Magazine in 2021, genetic research had brought to light that the Kordofan melon, native to Sudan, was the closest genetic relative to our modern watermelon. The Kordofan melon, although small and light green with a white and not so bitter flesh, was an ideal candidate for domestication by the Egyptians. With this close proximity to Egypt, this melon better fits with the rest of the story of the watermelon, as the Egyptians began to breed for more desirable characteristics, such as sweeter taste, size, and shape. In ancient Egyptian paintings found in tombs, watermelons of a more oblong shape can be seen as a part of meals and as part of the burial items, thought to provide water for the long journey the pharaoh would make in the afterlife.
The watermelon spread from northern Africa to the Mediterranean countries from 400BC to 500AD. The ancient Greek name for watermelon was pepon. Hippocrates and Dioscorides used watermelon as a diuretic and for treating children with heatstroke by placing the cool, wet rind on their head. Note to self: try a watermelon rind “hat” instead of a baseball cap in our 100°+ weather this summer! ...or not. The watermelon may also have been used as a natural canteen for fresh water on long voyages. The ancient Hebrew name for watermelon was avattihim. Farmers were instructed not to stack them but to lay them out individually, so as not to damage them. Tithed watermelons were placed in the same category as figs, grapes, and pomegranates, all sweet fruits, giving a clue that by 200AD watermelons had become sweet, although not as sweet as today, as their flesh was still yellow-orange in 425AD.
The red color of our modern watermelon was achieved through selective breeding, as the gene for the color red is linked to the gene for sweetness (sucrose). So, the melon became sweeter as the color of the flesh got redder. This change took many generations of breeding and red-fleshed watermelons may not have been common until possibly as late as the 14th century, as depicted in the medieval manuscript Tacuinum Sanitatis.
Watermelon reached China in the 10th century, and they are the largest producer of watermelons today. It wasn’t until the 17th century that the rest of Europe, beyond the Mediterranean region, began to grow watermelons as a minor garden crop. Florida was the first North American area to begin growing watermelons as they were brought by European colonists and by slave trade from Africa. Captain James Cook and others introduced watermelons to Hawaii and the Pacific Islands.
Fun Notes about watermelon:
Watermelons have a pretty colorful history, so let’s grow some color!
Amazingly watermelons are not extremely hard to grow in most places. As you get further north, a little more care may need to be taken as the growing season tends to be shorter and watermelons require a relatively long and hot growing season, usually 2-3 months.
Watermelons do best when they are seeded directly into warm (approx. 70°F), rich, well-drained garden soil after danger of frost. If you do choose to start watermelons inside and transplant them, be extra careful not to damage their sensitive roots. Planting them in well-spaced hills helps with drainage and over-crowding. A healthy watermelon plant can easily cover 25 square feet. Black garden ground cover can help to warm the soil faster and row covers can help keep young plants and the ground warm during unexpected cool/cold snaps, like I get here in northern Nevada. Watermelons and other melons are heavy feeders so it’s a good practice to work in fertilizer or compost before planting your seeds, and then add more when they begin to vine and then again when they begin to set fruit. Adequate water is also essential, 1-2 inches per week as they grow, then tapering off as the fruit grows. Within a week or two of harvest, only water to keep vines from wilting. This will concentrate the sugars in the melon; also, too much water at this time may cause the melons to split open. They do not like wet leaves, so a drip system or soaker hose are the best methods of watering.
Watermelons require pollination to set fruit, so support your local bees with plants that attract them to your garden area throughout your growing season.
As the melons ripen, it is a good idea to place a piece of cardboard or some straw under them to keep them from rotting from ground moisture and to deter critters or bugs from munching on them.
Watermelons may be grown on a strong trellis if the fruits are supported by a sling made from nylon stockings or netting or other strong material that will allow the melons to grow from a few inches in diameter to their full size without being pulled from the vine by their weight.
The most common pest for watermelons is cucumber beetles. Damage can also be found due to vine borers, aphids, and mites. Diseases can also affect your watermelon plants, including fusarium wilt, anthracnose, Alternaria leaf spot, and gummy stem blight. There are varieties that are more tolerant to these, if any are a problem in your area. Powdery mildew is rarely serious and can be alleviated by ground level watering.
Recent research has shown that reducing the number of leaves on your watermelon plants (some believe that pinching off the growing shoots will divert energy to the growing melons) actually decreases the sweetness of the melon as it is the vine’s leaves that produce the sugar, through photosynthesis, that sweetens the fruit.
Probably the trickiest part of growing watermelons, at least for me, is knowing when they are ripe. There is no real consensus on the best way, so I try to heed them all! If you find one way works best for you stick to it, but it is a good practice to be familiar with them all. Here’s a list, probably not exhaustive, of what I have found:
Watermelons do not continue to ripen after being picked, so try to pick them at their peak ripeness. You can store uncut watermelons for about ten days in a cool place, a cut watermelon wrapped snuggly in plastic will store in the refrigerator for about 4 days. It is best to enjoy your watermelon as quickly after harvest as possibly.
My favorite varieties in my northern Nevada garden are: Sugar Baby and Blacktail Mountain. I have also grown Crimson Red in the past as well as a yellow-fleshed melon, Golden Midget. The weather here is my biggest determinant of a good or failed crop. So far, this year (2021) is starting out great. I checked today (July 17th), and I have several small melons coming on. There is a blessing in our unusually hot weather!
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