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Exploring Watermelon: Origins, Growing Tips, and Recipes

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Watermelon is a popular summertime treat.

Watermelon is a popular summertime treat.

Sweet, fragrant, juice-running-down-your chin bliss—is there anything more evocative of summertime than a cold slice of watermelon? It appears at every backyard barbecue, beach party, picnic, or mid-year potluck. Have you ever wondered where it originated, if you can grow it, or how to use it in cooking? Let’s find out.

When one has tasted watermelon, he knows what the angels eat.

— Mark Twain

watermelon

watermelon

The History of Watermelon

The Kalahari Desert is vast in size, roughly 360,000 square miles—greater than the areas of New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada combined. Though it is named “desert” and has areas with months of drought and dry soil conditions, the Kalahari is actually classified as semi-arid. In her northern and eastern regions, you will find open woodlands and lush vegetation. The Kalahari is where some believe that the story of the watermelon begins.

However, remnants of watermelons dating back more than 5,000 years have been discovered in northern Africa (Libya to be precise) and in the tomb of King Tut. That certainly predates farming in southern Africa.

To unravel this mystery, in August 2015 Mark Strauss, writing for National Geographic, interviewed Harry Paris, a horticulturist at the Agricultural Research Organization in Israel. Paris believes that the progenitor of today’s watermelon was a bitter-tasting fruit indigenous to the Sudan and Egypt. You might well wonder “why would the wise people of Africa waste their time cultivating what was a detestable-tasting food?” The answer lies in the name—watermelon. If kept in a cool, dry place, the watermelon could last for months and was a source of water when no other could be found.

With selective breeding, the bitter taste was finally removed, but that’s just the beginning of its evolution. According to Paris:

“After 2000 B.C., the watermelon’s historical trail must be teased out of medical books, travelogues, recipes, and religious texts. By studying and comparing descriptions from several sources, I was able to deduce the ancient names for the watermelon and track its many uses.Writings from 400 B.C. to 500 A.D. indicate the watermelon spread from northeastern Africa to Mediterranean countries. In addition to trade and bartering, the watermelon’s territorial expansion was aided by its unique role as a natural canteen for fresh water on long voyages.

“The ancient Greek name for the watermelon was the pepon. Physicians, including Hippocrates and Dioscorides, praised its many healing properties. It was prescribed as a diuretic and as a way to treat children with heatstroke by placing the cool, wet rind on their heads.The Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, was also a fan, describing the pepon as a refrigerant maxime—an extremely cooling food—in his first century encyclopedia, Historia Naturalis."

Selective cultivation brought about another change in the watermelon. In time the color of the interior flesh mutated from yellow to the pink-reddish hue we recognize today.

By the 7th century A.D., cultivation of the watermelon had spread to India and by the 10th century to China, which today is the top producer of the fruit in the world. It is believed that they introduced the watermelon to Spain and from there, its popularity spread to southern Europe.

lots of beautiful watermelons

lots of beautiful watermelons

Top Producers of Watermelon in the World

statistics last updated in September 2018

CountryTons 

China

79,244,271

 

Turkey

3,928,892

 

Iran

3,813,850

 

Brazil

2,090,432

Uzbekistan

1,976,373

Algeria

1,877,069

United States

1,823,160

Florida, Georgia, California, and Texas produce 2/3 of the watermelon grown in the U.S.

Russia

1,757,921

Egypt

1,680,994

Mexico

1,199,648

How to Grow Watermelon

Watermelons require a long growing season—at least 80 days—and need warm soil to germinate and grow. Seedlings do not perform well, so plan to sow directly when soil temperatures are 70 degrees F. or warmer.

Watermelons require a lot of space; their vines can spread 20 feet or more. They are also heavy feeders and benefit from fertilizers high in nitrogen.

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Growth Requirements

  • Light: 8 to 10 hours of sunlight per day
  • Soil: loamy, loose, well-drained
  • pH: 6.0 to 6.8
  • Spacing: 8 to 10 seeds per hill, hills set 3 to 4 feet apart, rows 6 to 8 feet apart
  • Thinning: Thin to best of 3 plants in each hill.
  • Pests: bothered by cucumber beetles and vine borers
  • Water: 1 inch per week
  • Ripening: As the fruit develops, gently lift and place cardboard underneath to prevent rot.
  • Harvest: Watermelons do not continue to ripen after picking so careful selection is important. An unripe watermelon will have a white bottom; a ripe melon will have a cream/yellow-colored bottom.
watermelon BBQ sauce

watermelon BBQ sauce

Watermelon Barbecue Sauce

Here's an imaginative way to take watermelon to your backyard barbecue. Puree some fresh watermelon (your blender or food processor will do this in a jiffy) and simmer with garlic, ketchup, brown sugar, and soy sauce for a few minutes on the stovetop. Season to taste with salt and pepper and you will have watermelon barbecue sauce. Thanks to Jen Nikolaus for this super recipe.

Watermelon Bars

Now that you know how to obtain watermelon juice (that first recipe was so easy) you should have no problem making these watermelon bars. Simply mix and bake a graham crust. After the crust has cooled, mix watermelon juice with unflavored gelatin, pour over the crust and chill until set.

If you wish, garnish with whipped topping and mint leaves.

Fluffy Watermelon Pie

When Norene Cox's children grew up, she found herself missing the pleasure of making classroom treats and baking for birthdays. Rather than wallow in despair, she created the website Party Pinching to share her budget-friendly party ideas, cute food inspiration, and fun & easy crafts. She has appeared on the Martha Stewart show and is a semi-regular on the Seattle morning television show New Day Northwest. She's published two cookbooks and has contributed to numerous periodicals and websites.

Norene's watermelon pie is festive and refreshing and "easy as pie." With an assist from a box of watermelon-flavored Jello and a container of Cool Whip, this fun dessert can be ready in just about the time it takes to boil water. Chill for 3 hours in the refrigerator.

watermelon fruit pizza

watermelon fruit pizza

Watermelon Fruit Pizza

No, I've not totally lost my mind. We are not baking watermelon. This watermelon "pizza" is merely a fun presentation of a fruit dessert, and it was created by Six Sisters. (Yes that is the name of the blog by sisters Steph, Kendra, Lauren, Elyse, Kristen, and Camille). Theirs is the blog I go to find imaginative, healthy, fun, and easy recipes.

Cream cheese and Cool Whip are blended together and spread atop a large disc of watermelon. Then fresh blueberries, strawberries, and kiwi slices are decoratively arranged on top.

Watermelon Salad with Feta and Cucumber

We take a slight departure with this recipe by Sara Welch (Dinner At the Zoo). Watermelon is combined with cucumber, feta cheese, and mint for delightful contrasts of sweet, salty, creamy, crisp, and cooling herby freshness. A homemade dressing of olive oil, lime juice, and a touch of salt and pepper brings all of the flavors together in perfect harmony.

This colorful watermelon salad takes only 10 minutes to assemble and is low in calories

watermelon and mango pico de gallo

watermelon and mango pico de gallo

Watermelon Mango Pico de Gallo

When I want a recipe that is slightly sophisticated but simple and made with fresh ingredients, I look to Damn Delicious, the blog by Chungah Rhee. With color photographs, videos, and tutorials she brings her kitchen to you and guides you every step of the way to make mouthwatering foods for your loved ones.

Her watermelon/mango salsa with fresh jalapeño and cilantro hits all the right notes of sweet, salty, spicy, and herby fresh.

Sources

© 2019 Linda Lum

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