Exploring Watermelon: Origins, Growing Tips, and Recipes

Updated on October 22, 2019
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Exploring food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

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

— Mark Twain

Summertime

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.

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Long Ago and Far Away

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.

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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.

Top Producers of Watermelon in the World

Country
Tons
 
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
 
statistics last updated in September 2018

How to Grow

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.

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.

Recipes

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Linda Lum

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      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        3 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Denise, I know, it's so pretty and colorful, isn't it? Thanks so much for stopping by. You're racking up frequent-flier miles LOL.

      • PAINTDRIPS profile image

        Denise McGill 

        3 months ago from Fresno CA

        What a great history lesson. I love it. These recipes sound simply yummy. I've got to try the watermelon pico de gallo. Thanks for the research.

        Blessings,

        Denise

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        3 months ago from Washington State, USA

        MizBejabbers, I'm so glad you stopped by. I did not know that watermelons are grown in Arkansas and that they are "famous." Your sorbet sounds delicious--and so easy. Thank you for sharing that.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        3 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Flourish, writing the history is the "funnest" part of my job.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        3 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Shauna - I see no reason that honest to goodness real whipped cream could not be substituted for the Cool Whip. I say "go for it" and yes, watermelon with a dash of salt is wonderful.

      • MizBejabbers profile image

        Doris James MizBejabbers 

        3 months ago from Beautiful South

        Linda, this article really resonated with me. I love the recipe ideas. We love watermelon and eat several a week at our house when it's in season...and when it's available when our own Arkansas melons are not. My state may not have made the list, but we have two very famous watermelon producers, Hope (Bill Clinton's hometown) and Cave City, just a few miles from where I grew up. In fact Cave City melons are so famous that for a person to sell them, the Cave City melons must contain stickers labeling them as authentic. If they don't contain a sticker, they are a "knockoff".

        I have a dairy allergy and suffer from eating ice cream, so my favorite summertime recipe is watermelon sorbet, and it's so simple to make. Puree the melon "meat" in the blender and combine with an equal part of simple syrup. I use 2 cups melon puree with juice and 2 cups simple syrup. Add 1 Tb. lemon juice and 1/4 tsp. salt. The lemon juice and salt can be adjusted to taste. Pour into freezer container and freeze. Enjoy!

        By the way, if we get a melon that isn't flavorful, I salvage it by making it into sorbet. I'll bet it would work for salsa, too. And as always, my pet chickens are grateful for the rind.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        3 months ago from USA

        You have made me thirsty for a watermelon frozen mixed drink! That watermelon pie looks good and I enjoyed learning the history.

      • bravewarrior profile image

        Shauna L Bowling 

        3 months ago from Central Florida

        The watermelon bars look delicious. So does the watermelon pie, but once I learned Cool Whip is in it, I didn't click on the link.

        The salad looks yummy and refreshing as well.

        Linda, do you ever sprinkle watermelon with salt? It's ever so yum-yum!

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        3 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Eric, I love that you are experimenting with adornments to your watermelon. We have had a similar occurrence in our backyard. Mr. Carb has been enjoying bing cherries on the patio and tossing the pits into the woods. I told him in years to come the next homeowner will wonder where those cherry trees came from.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        3 months ago from Olympia, WA

        Sure, I'll eat it. Gotta be seedless, though. How do they do that...seedless watermelon? One of life's true mysteries. :)

        I'm already sweating. This is going to be a long, long, hot day, my friend.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        3 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Linda I ate a full half of one yesterday. Just a Sugar Baby. One bowl lemon and salt. One bowl with Cholulla hot sauce and one plain.

        This history is fascinating.

        Gabe and I ate some in back one having a blast spitting out the seeds. two weeks later and boom! Water melon coming up all over.

        Pico de Gallo today!

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        3 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Thanks, Pamela. You are such a dear friend. You always take the time to stop by and comment.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        3 months ago from Sunny Florida

        Summer means chilled watermelon to me. I love it! I never considered a pie, but the salads look wonderful. I really enjoyed reading the history of this delicious fruit. I will take a closer look at the recipes and be open-minded.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        3 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Lori, did I miss something? I didn't notice almonds in the crust for the bars. I think you could simply use your favorite graham cracker crust recipe and it would be fine. Thanks for the kind words. For me, history is the fun part. I love a good story.

      • lambservant profile image

        Lori Colbo 

        3 months ago from Pacific Northwest

        You are so good at history of foods, it's always interesting. I am going to make the watermelon bars when I figure out a different crust (allergic to almonds), and the salad. Thanks a bunch.

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