It’s hard not to like a watermelon, whether you purchase tiny ones with yellow flesh, long heavy ones that take up a shelf in your refrigerator, or many of the varieties in between. Made of almost 92% water, this melon well lives up to its name. It is enjoyed in many parts of the world as a refreshing — especially when chilled — light tasting fruit, with a propensity, when eaten in slices, to drip down the chin.
Horticulturalists believe that watermelons originated in South Africa, and their name refers not only to the fruit but also to the specific plant, Citrullus lunatus. Considering genus is important. Most melons belong to the genus, Cucumis, but watermelons are classified differently in the genus Citrullus. Citrullus includes a variety of vine plants that tend to originate in desert conditions. A variant on the standard melon is Tsamma melon, which has a much higher pectin count, and grows wild in the Kalahari Desert.
Watermelons and Tsamma melons both have a much thicker rind than do melons of the genus Cucumis. This is called an exocarp. What is inside the melon’s flesh is made up of endocarp and mesocarp, or the fruit’s flesh. There are uses for the exocarp, you’ll find recipes for the rind across the world, including southern US favorites like pickled watermelon rind. Early watermelons, and still many today contain numerous black seeds that are also edible. However in the 20th century, seedless varieties of the plant were engineered, which resulted in watermelons with far fewer seeds, and what seeds are present are usually not as hard and pale white, as opposed to the typical black.
Since watermelon thrives in warm conditions, it’s not surprising that cultivation of the plant spread to places like Egypt, where it is believed to have been cultivated about 2000 BCE. China soon became an avid cultivator of Citrullus lunatus, by at least the 10th century CE, though there are some that contend that the first Asian country to cultivate the watermelon was Viet Nam. When the Moors invaded China, or established trade, watermelon cultivation spread across Asia, the Persian Gulf, and thence to Europe, and Early American settlers were growing the fruit by the 17th century, though some suggest explorers of the New World introduced the plant to Native Americans in the early 16th century.
Early versions of Citrullus lunatus were fairly vulnerable to disease, so the fruit was mainly enjoyed as grown by individuals. Interest in producing a more shippable, durable and disease-resistant product led to numerous new cultivars in the 1940s. Though there are certainly plenty of watermelon farmers in the US, the largest producer of the fruit today is the Chinese. Variant cultivars exist in great number, including small round varieties in a lovely color range of red, bright yellow and orange, and square stackable versions that derive their shape from being grown in glass containers. There’s nothing wrong with the classic version, though some argue smaller versions are much sweeter.
Typically watermelon is most often enjoyed as served in slices but it can also be added to smoothies, fruit salads, or even grilled in round slices called watermelon steak. A common practice when serving such a steak either grilled or raw is to add salt, which many believe enhances the flavor. Another practice, very popular on college campuses is to bore a whole into the melon and add alcohol, then to eat this alcoholic version in slices.
In the US, you’re most likely to find fresh watermelon available from late spring through summer, and it may be grown locally in places like Arizona, California and many of the Southern states. Watermelons are a good source of fiber, potassium and A, B6 and C vitamins. The high water and low calorie content of the fruit make it a favorite among dieters. Furthermore, the high water content is fantastic if you’re trying to get a person to consume more fluids. Those who may eschew water, especially kids, but be perfectly willing to eat this popular fruit instead.