An African Native of World Popularity
The watermelon (Citrullus vulgaris) is hardly a vegetable, but it is such a universally popular truck or garden crop that it has a place in this article.
The culture of the watermelon goes back to prehistoric times. It was grown by the ancient Egyptians, as revealed by pictures that survive to the present. Old names in Arabic, Berber, Sanskrit, Spanish, and Sardinian are all unrelated, indicating great antiquity of culture in lands about the Mediterranean and east as far as India.
The long and general culture of the watermelon from North Africa to middle Asia led to the view that it was of Asiatic origin, although it had never been found wild in Asia or elsewhere. Finally, however, about a hundred years ago, the great missionary-explorer, David Livingstone, settled the question of its origin. He found large tracts in central Africa literally covered with watermelons growing truly wild.
In the wild state both bitter and sweet melons occur in the same locality, but the bitter ones appear no different from the sweet. The natives knock a hole in each fruit to taste the juice before taking it for food or drink.
Important Water Source in Dry Times
In certain semidesert districts the watermelon is an important source of water to the natives during dry periods; even today there are districts in Africa where it is cultivated for that purpose. One explorer, writing in this Magazine, stated that he had depended entirely upon watermelons for his water supply for as long as six weeks.*
Watermelons have been grown to an important extent in the warmer parts of Russia, Asia Minor, the Near East, and Middle East for thousands of years, although they appear to have reached China only about a thousand years ago.
A wide range of sizes and shapes, rind, seed, and flesh colors was described by European botanists of the 16th and 17th centuries; in fact, all the shapes, sizes, and colors that we now know. These include yellow and white flesh as well as red flesh, and speckled seeds as well as white, red, brown, and black. There are also green-seeded varieties.
The plant was doubtless known many hundreds of years ago in all European countries where it could be grown. It was brought to America by some of the earliest European colonists, being common in Massachusetts in 1629. The Florida Indians were said to have been growing watermelons by the mid-1600's, and Father Marquette, French explorer of the Mississippi, mentioned them in 1673 as being grown in the interior of the country.
In America the watermelon is used almost entirely as a dessert, to be eaten fresh-and cold. The rind, however, is made into preserves or sweet "pickles" to some extent. The seeds are used in this country only for planting.
Watermelon Beer in Russia
In southern Russia a beer is made from watermelon juice, or the juice may be boiled down to a heavy syrup like molasses for its sugar.
In Iraq, and in Egypt and elsewhere in Africa, the flesh of the melon is used as a staple food and animal feed as well as a source of water in some dry districts.
In the Old World, particularly Asia, the seeds are roasted, with or without salting, and eaten from the hand. Orientals also preserve watermelon by salting or brining large pieces or halves in barrels.
Although melons weighing 25 to 40 pounds are most popular in America, our seed catalogues have listed small varieties such as Baby Delight, Northern Sweet, and Sweet Siberian for many years. These small five- to ten-pound melons have long been grown in the cooler parts of the country where the summers are short.
Greatly oversized watermelons have no sound market value. They are too difficult to handle without damage or wastage; most customers do not want them; and they are likely to be inferior in quality to those of normal size. Modern emphasis is upon high quality of garden products rather than mere size, although of course large yields per unit of land are always sought.
Although the watermelon will not cross with pumpkin, squash, or cucumber, it will cross with the so-called preserving melon, or citron, which is simply a hard, white-fleshed watermelon, good only for preserving. Cross pollination with citron will cause no harm unless the seed of the fruit from a cross pollinated flower is planted. Such seed will produce mixed melons of poor quality.
"Seedless" watermelons have been produced experimentally in recent years by two wholly different methods, neither of which appears practical as yet for use by farmers and gardeners.
* See "Adventures Among the 'Lost Tribes of Islam' in Eastern Darfur: A Personal Narrative of Exploring, Mapping, and Setting Up a Government in the AngloEgyptian Sudan Borderland," by Maj. Edward Keith-Roach, National Geographic Magazine, January, 1924