A muskmelon is a cultivar of Cucumis melo. Muskmelons are incredibly varied, running the gamut from cantaloupes to casaba melons. They are often readily available from the late summer to the early fall in the market, and they can also be grown at home, if you have some space in the garden. In some regions, muskmelons are so ubiquitous that people simply call them “melons,” which can be a bit confusing.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the muskmelon originated in Persia. Muskmelons were extensively cultivated by the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, as well as throughout the Middle East, and several cultivars are hundreds of years old. These melons develop a rich, musky scent as they ripen, and when handled and grown well, they will have sweet, flavorful flesh. Many people enjoy muskmelons out of hand, but they can also be pureed and made into smoothies and sorbets, or paired with foods like prosciutto, honey, or yogurt.
There are two basic categories of muskmelons: netted and smooth. The archetypal example of the netted muskmelon is the cantaloupe, which has a classic fibrous net over its rind. Persian melons are another well known netted variety. Honeydew and casaba melons fall into the smooth-skinned category. Numerous other muskmelon cultivars are probably available at your market in season, depending on regional tastes.
The skin of a muskmelon can vary in color from creamy white to rich green, while the flesh may be white, green, golden, orange, or even almost salmon colored. As a general rule, the flesh of a muskmelon is cool and refreshing, with a sweet, flavorful juice. The best melons are allowed to ripen fully on the vine, developing to their full sweetness potential, and you can identify them by their heady aroma and a slight softness around the depression in the skin where the flower once grew.
If you want to grow muskmelons in your own garden and you live in USDA zone seven or higher, find a sunny spot in the garden with well drained soil and mulch the area well. Start melons from seed indoors around two weeks before the last frost, or purchase seedling after the last chance of frost has passed. Plant the seedings and cover them with cloches at night to protect them until they grow large, and water them well with compost tea; you may also want to add fish emulsion to the soil to keep the melons healthy and well fertilized. Keep the plants well watered until the fruits start to develop, and then taper the watering off and support the growing melons with boards to reduce the risk of rot; do not pick the melons until they are fully ripe.
Some muskmelon cultivars will grow in USDA zones four through seven. Pick cultivars which will mature quickly, and ask for recommendations if you're not sure about which varietals will be most hardy. Follow the growing directions above, taking special care to cover the melons at night early in the season to protect the young plants from unexpected cold snaps.