Texas Cooperative Extension,
Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas

April 2005


Melons

Reprinted with permission from the National Garden Bureau

Melons

According to Webster's Dictionary, melons are "the large round fruit of various plants of the gourd family, with sweet pulpy flesh and many seeds (honeydew, cantaloupe, muskmelon)." They are vining, warm-season fruits, growing best in regions with long summers. Although both male and female flowers grow on the same plant, bees are necessary for pollination and fruiting. Most melons ripen in late summer or early- to mid-fall. They range in size from slightly larger than a softball to hefty 15-pound varieties, and in color - both outside and inside, with pale grayish-white to very dark green skin and the palest yellow to the brightest orange and green flesh. Their seeds fill the hollow center of the fruit.

Melons are a summertime delight - sweet and juicy fruits - whether freshly picked or cooled in the refrigerator. Theyíre versatile - more than a dessert or snack - as an ingredient in salads, salsas, side dishes, entrees, and drinks. Even the ripe seeds, dried and toasted, make a healthy snack.

HISTORY

Humankind has been enjoying melons for more than 4,000 years. Surprisingly, melons have never been found growing in the wild - other than escapees from someone's garden. Melons are believed to have originated in the hot valleys of southwest Asia - specifically Iran (Persia) and India. Early American settlers grew cultivars of honeydew and casaba melons back in the 1600s. Yet, only in recent times, many more varieties are available, often out of season in grocery stores. Of course, growing melons from seed gives you the best choice of types and cultivated varieties.

The first documented use of the word "melon" was about 1395. John Ayto's Dictionary of Word Origins suggests that the word is derived from Melos (the Greek Cyclades Islands, best known for the Venus de Milo). Melons wend their way into literature. In their text, the Mahometans (very early name for the followers of Mohammed) wrote that eating a melon produces a thousand good works.

NOMENCLATURE

Letís start with the basics. All melons are in the same family: Cucurbitaceae, the cucurbit or gourd family. This large family has more than 100 branches, including cucumbers, gourds, pumpkins, all manner of squash, and even loofahs. "Melons" fall into two genera: Cucumis and Citrullus. Cucumis comprises all melons except for watermelon, which is Citrullus - a totally different genus. As a group, all Cucumis melo melons can be called muskmelons or melons.

Taxonomically, Cucumis melo is further divided into different groups. Cantaloupensis is the true cantaloupe, which is medium sized, warty or scaly, common in Europe, but not grown commercially in America.

The Reticulatus group of melons - the most commonly grown - is easily identified by its netted skin and is called netted or summer melon. This group includes Galia and Charentais melons as well as what we call cantaloupe. In America, the terms "muskmelon" and "cantaloupe" are used interchangeably, yet "cantaloupe" is more common. When ripe, these melons are aromatic and the vine "slips" off from the fruit.

The melons of the Inodorous group, known as smooth or winter melons, distinguish themselves with their smooth skin (rind). In maturity, they lack an aromatic or musky odor and do not slip from the vine. Members of this group include the casaba, crenshaw, Christmas, canary, and honeydew melons.

MELON TYPES

There are numerous types of melons available in various regions around the world. The most popular melons in North America are the cantaloupe, muskmelon and honeydew types. As gardeners travel, they eat new fruits and vegetables and wish to grow the tasty fruits eaten overseas. These unusual types of melons are available primarily from seed. Look for these distinct types in mail-order catalogs or seed packets sold in retail stores.

ANANAS MELONS (a.k.a. Middle Eastern melons) are oval shaped with medium-fine netting over pale green to orange rind. Very sweet, aromatic white flesh. One variety has orange-pink flesh. Average weight is three to four pounds.

ATHENA CANTALOUPES are Eastern U.S. cantaloupes. They are early maturing, oval-shaped; yellow-orange summer melons with firm, thick, yellow-orange flesh. The skin is slightly sutured with coarse netting. Average weight is 5 to 6 pounds. Left on the vine or harvested, the flesh remains firm.

Canary melon 'Amy'
Canary melon 'Amy'
CANARY MELONS (a.k.a. Spanish, Juan Canary, Jaune des Canaries, and San Juan canary melons), have bright yellow rinds and an oblong shape. Inside, the pale, cream-colored flesh is juicy, and the flavor is very mild.

CANTALOUPES - (see true cantaloupe and muskmelon)

CASABA MELONS The oval shape with a pointy end, coupled with wrinkled yellow skin sets casabas off from other melons. As does its heft: weighing in at four to seven pounds. The pale, almost white flesh is extremely sweet.

CHARENTAIS MELONS (a.k.a. French Charentais) are French melons identifiable by their smooth, gray, or gray-blue rinds with sutures and orange flesh. Small, cut in half they serve two for breakfast.

CHRISTMAS MELONS (a.k.a. Piel de Sapo and Rochet) have a football shape, weighing upwards of 5 to 8 pounds. Cut through the yellow to green mottled rinds to reveal the palest orange or light green flesh depending upon the variety. Sweet flesh.

CRENSHAW MELONS (also seen as cranshaw) are a Casaba cross with a slightly more oblong shape, weighing at least 5 pounds. The slightly wrinkled green rind ripens to yellow. Inside, the flesh is pale peachy orange. It has a strong, spicy aroma.

GALIA MELONS are Israeli melons that have netted rinds similar to cantaloupes but paler in color. The sweet pale green to almost white flesh has the consistency of a honeydew with what has been described as a spicy-sweet or banana-like aroma. When ripe, they slip from the vine.

HONEYDEWS (a.k.a. honeydew melon, honey dew melon), second only to "cantaloupes" in popularity, have smooth, white to greenish-white rinds (some may be yellow) and open to reveal refreshingly sweet flesh that may be green, white, or orange. Its texture is similar to a cantaloupe, but the flavor more subtle and sweet.

MUSKMELONS are the familiar American cantaloupes with orange flesh and netted skin.

ORIENTAL MELONS are small (weighing a little more than a pound), elongated yellow melons with white sutures, and sweet, pale peach to white flesh. Because the seeds are so small and the rind is so thin, the entire melon can be eaten.

PERSIAN MELONS, bigger than cantaloupes, have a dark green rind with light brown netting. As it ripens, the rind turns to light green. Bright pink-orange flesh has a delicate flavor. Unlike most melons in the Reticulatus group, Persian melons do not slip from the vine when mature.

TRUE CANTALOUPE, named for the town of Cantalupo near Rome, Italy has rough-warty (not netted) skin. This is the European cantaloupe, rarely grown in America.

WINTER MELON- is the catchall name for the long-season, long-keeping (a month or more at room temperature) melons, including crenshaw, casaba, canary, and Christmas melons.

GROWING MELONS FROM SEED

Melons are warm-season fruits, which thrive in temperatures of 70į to 80į F. They prefer slightly acid soil with a pH between 6.0 and 6.5. Melons are thirsty and hungry plants, so be prepared to provide ample soil moisture and plant nutrients for them.

Like other cucurbits, melons can easily crossbreed, so allow plenty of space between different types or cultivars. To be completely safe from any accidental cross-pollination, keep them away from other family members including cucumbers, squash, and pumpkins.

In mild-winter areas, sow seeds directly in the garden at the same time as you plant tomatoes - after all danger of frost is past and the ground is warm and has dried from its winter wetness. Make a small hill of rich, amended, well-drained soil and plant three to five seeds two inches apart and about one inch deep. Water well and watch them grow. Once the vines have two sets of true leaves, thin out the smaller or weaker vines, leaving the two strongest to grow on.

Some gardeners, especially those in cold-winter climates plant melons through black plastic mulch. The dark plastic absorbs heat, warms the soil early, conserves moisture, controls weeds, keeps some pests and diseases away, and makes harvesting a whole lot easier and cleaner.

Lay the plastic over the future melon garden in late winter to start warming the soil. Weigh down the edges or else the plastic will take flight. Check the temperature, and when the soil is above 60į F, you can start planting. Make five-inch, x-line cuts at least four feet apart on six-foot centers - if you grow in rows. If you commingle edibles and ornamentals, allow at least three feet in all directions around the cut-plastic x. Pull the plastic back and create a hill of soil (amended with lots of organic matter). Plant seeds, as above, or transplant melons that you started indoors.

SOWING SEED INDOORS

In colder regions with shorter summers, youíll be more successful with transplants than directly seeding in the black plastic. Sow the seeds indoors in peat pots filled with compost about 15-18 days before planting time. Harden off the plants for at least a week before planting them. Melons are cold-sensitive; pay attention to both the air and soil temperatures before transplanting. At planting time, tear the peat pot down to its soil level. Otherwise, the pot can act as a wick, drawing moisture up out of the soil. Water well with transplant solution. If cold weather threatens, make a mini-greenhouse from a one-gallon, plastic milk jug. Cut off the bottom and set the jug over the hill. Push it 1/2 inch into the ground for stability. When the temperature rises during the day, vent the greenhouse by removing the cap.

HOW TO GROW FROM PURCHASED PLANTS

Melons are occasionally available commercially as seedlings or transplants at nurseries or garden centers. Look for healthy melon transplants and get them into the ground ASAP, following the directions for transplanting, above.

CARE

Melons need a minimum of 1-inch of water a week: 2 inches is better. Water melons in the morning, ideally at soil level using drip irrigation, so the leaves can dry before evening, preventing fungal diseases. In case of drought or water restrictions, watering is critical when the fruit starts setting and when the fruit is maturing.

Fertilize every two to three weeks, using an all-purpose fertilizer, such as 5-5-5. Add several inches of compost to all root areas monthly. Some gardeners use an organic or inorganic mulch. The soil should be lightly moist: up to a foot deep. Transplant, then mulch around the plants.

If your plants are flowering but not setting fruit, donít fret. The earliest flowers are male (pollen-bearing), so cannot set fruit. Only the female (pistillate) flowers can develop into melons. Female flowers are distinguished by the tiny bulb at the base of the flower. If the flower isnít pollinated, the flower and fruit will eventually fall off the vine.

The best and sweetest melons ripen when the weather is hot and dry. In areas with humid summers, you can give melons a boost by planting them in soil that is very well drained and with ample space for good air circulation around the entire vine.

Occasionally a homegrown melon may not taste as sweet as expected. This may be due to an abundance of rain the three weeks prior to harvest. Melons need sufficient moisture while growing and fruiting, but prior to harvest, the best, sweetest flavor will occur if the plant is grown on the "dry" side. Cut back on watering the plant when you approach harvest, about 3 weeks prior to the main crop harvest.

HARVEST

Melons need heat to ripen properly. Yet on very hot days melons can overripen on the vine, giving them a waterlogged appearance. Most summer melons are fragrant when ripe. Sniff the skin; if you smell the flavor of the melon (the senses of smell and taste are interrelated), it is ripe for the picking. Another indicator for ripeness is when the stem separates (slips) easily where the vine attaches to the fruit. Cantaloupes are mature when the rind changes from green to tan-yellow between the veins.

Honeydew, crenshaw, and other winter melons are ready to harvest when they turn completely white or yellow, and the blossom end is slightly soft to touch. Since they do not slip, cut the melons from the vine. They will continue to ripen for several days at room temperature once they are picked.

Poor flavor may be the consequence of the weather: cloudy during ripening, too hot, too much or too little water, or a combination of factors.

The sweetest and most flavorful melons are those picked ripe from the vine and eaten right away. They may not be icy cold, but the fresh flavor and perfume more than make up for the temperature difference. Go ahead, open a melon and eat it right in the garden: without utensils - and let the sweet nectar run down your chin. Thatís the true taste of summer! Rinse melons purchased from grocery stores.

POSSIBLE PESTS & DISEASES

Like most other plants - ornamental and edible - melons are susceptible to a number of pests and diseases, some of which may be more prevalent in one area of the country than another.

In the garden, survival of the fittest prevails. If you put a healthy, vigorous melon transplant (or seed of a good variety of melon for your region), into rich, well-drained, soil that has been amended with plenty of organic matter, in full sun, with good air circulation, top dress it or fertilize, and provide it with ample water and enough room for the vine to run, the result will be a strong, healthy, well-grown vine, bearing lots of fruit.

Take away any of its necessities, and the resulting plant will be weaker and/or stressed. A healthy plant is not going to attract pests and diseases; a weak one will. YOU are the other key to success. Walk around the garden several times a week, paying attention to the vines, leaves, flowers, and fruit. Be on the lookout for any sign of pests or diseases. If you find something suspicious, identify the cause, and if necessary, fix the problem in the least toxic manner possible. The degree to which the plant is distressed - if at all - must be taken into consideration. Remember that what you think is a problem may be only cosmetic.

Prevention is the key to disease management. Use seeds from a reputable source. Give transplants a once-over before moving them into the garden. Be fastidious in fall cleanup; get rid of all parts of the plant, leaving bare soil that you can mulch, or plant for winter. At the first sign of disease, remove the infected part; remove and discard the mulch around the plant and replace it with fresh, clean mulch. Donít plant any cucurbits in the same place within the last three years (crop rotation). With melons, an ounce of prevention may be worth hundreds of pounds of cure in healthy, delicious fruit.

Check with your local Cooperative Extension Service for advice on disease and pest management where you live, as it varies in different regions.

Some of the most common adversaries you may face:

  • Fungus diseases, including Alternaria leaf spot, powdery mildew, anthracnose, and downy mildew.
  • Insects like cucumber beetles and aphids
  • Mosaic virus

CONTAINER CULTURE

If you have a small, sunny space, you can grow melons: in containers. The secrets are size and soil. Select a large container; a dwarf melon variety, and rich soil. Fill a half whiskey barrel (with drainage holes) with compost mixed with two handfuls of peat moss, pop in a dwarf melon that grows only 3- to 4-feet long, producing a 4-inch fruit, and water. Grow up a trellis if you wish, supporting the fruit with nets made of old pantyhose or onion bags. Follow the care instructions, above.

NUTRITION

Melons contain up to 94% water. Yet in that remaining six percent, they can pack in a lot of nutrients: 100 gram serving:
CANTALOUPE (American) - 100% of Vitamin A, and 24% of Vitamin C
CASABA - 40% of Vitamin C, and 4% of iron
CHARENTAIS - 75% of Vitamin C, no calcium
CHRISTMAS MELON - 50% of Vitamin C
GALIA - 100% of Vitamin A, and 80% of Vitamin C
HONEYDEW - 53% of Vitamin C
ORIENTAL MELON - 62% of Vitamin C

No matter which of the melons you grow, add them to your culinary repertoire and youíll be sure to impress family and guests. All melons are flavorful enough on their own, yet you can enhance them with a sprinkle of ginger or salt. A squirt of lemon or lime juice will bring out the melonís sweetness.


The National Garden Bureau recognizes Cathy Wilkinson Barash as the author of this article.