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Delicious watermelon
Aug 28, 2015

One of summer’s great treats is watermelon, a fruit that oozes red-coloured juice down the chin with every savoury mouthful. After all, it’s jam-packed with sugary water. It’s messy to eat, but it’s oh, so, so good.

Young and old alike love to chomp down on the fleshy fruit of a watermelon. A baby’s first bite of the super-sweet melon results in a smile of outright ecstacy — the proverbial grin from ear to ear. When the bite is accomplished and the red fruit withdrawn, outstretched stubby arms then reach out eagerly in the hope of getting more, which is a process continually repeated.

And who can blame them? It’s oh, so, so, lip-smacking good.

In my youth, I looked on with anticipation at family garden plots filled with the fruit, knowing that at the point of its most delicious ripeness, a kind-hearted elderly gardener would slice up a watermelon for distribution to a gathering flock of neighbourhood children.  We always ate the fleshy red fruit right down to the white inside rind.

Actually, it’s only North American grown watermelon that are a summer treat, as melons from far-distant points across the globe are available year-round. But somehow these watermelons are never as good as the locally-grown variety from my youth. It must be something in Manitoba’s soil that brings out that sugary sweetness.

Famed American humourist Mark Twain, otherwise known as Samuel Clemens, said watermelons were “what angels eat.”

But according to a National Geographic Magazine article entitled, The 5,000-Year Secret History of Watermelon, by Mark Strauss, and published on August 21, no one today would have wanted to bite into the ancestor of the watermelon we now regard with such satisfaction. It was a bitter fruit with hard, pale-green flesh. Yuk!

It took generations of selective breeding to transform that yucky plant into the food of angels.

According to the Strauss article, “Harry Paris, a horticulturalist with the Agricultural Research Organization in Israel, has spent years assembling clues — including ancient Hebrew text, artifacts in Egyptian tombs, and medieval illustrations—that have enabled him to chronicle the watermelon’s astonishing 5,000-year transformation.”

Apparently, there has been some confusion over which plant is the ancient of today’s lip-smacking treat.

Strauss wrote that scientists agree that the watermelon’s progenitor, which he called the ur-watermelon, was cultivated in Africa before spreading out around the Mediterranean and then to Europe.

He wrote the theories about the fruit’s origins are “literally, all over the map,” although limited to somewhere in Africa.

Paris blames generations of taxonomists from as far back as the 18th century for “screwing up” the classification of the melon.

Imagine a watermelon being classified dead-wrong today as Citrullus lanatus. Strauss wrote that lanatus means “hairy” in Latin, and the name first used for the “fuzz-covered” citron melon, which is now classified as Citrullus amarus and is native to southern Africa.

The bitter South African melon first collected by Carl Peter Thunberg in 1794 and given the name Momordica lanata. It was reassigned to the genus Citrullus in 1916 by Japanese botanists Ninzo Matsumura and Takenoshin Nakai. This “wooly” melon has become naturalized in semiarid regions of several continents, and is designated as a “pest plant” in parts of Western Australia (Wikipedia).

The dried fruit of the citron melon, under the name Kibut, is used in one region of India as an emetic, a rather unappetizing thought. On the other hand, the juice fruit of the watermelon in combination with cumin and sugar is used in the same country as a cooling drink.

Paris said the citron melon is a possible candidate as an ancestor of the watermelon, but he’s doubtful. Ancient Egyptians were growing watermelon at least 4,000 years ago, which predates farming in southern Africa.

Another candidate in the Strauss article is egusi melon from western Africa, but Paris said that egusi is not cultivated for its fruit. Instead, its seeds are eaten — nobody today wants to chow down on watermelon seeds. They’re an inconvenience, and their only practical use is for watermelon seed spitting contests. The World Championship of Watermelon Seed Spitting is held annually at Luling, Texas.

Paris’ candidate for the ancestor of the watermelon is the plant indigenous to northeastern Africa that is named citrullus lanatus var. colocynthoides in Latin. These grow wild in the deserts of Egypt and Sudan.

Archeologists have found watermelon seeds at a 5,000-year-old settlement in Libya.

“Seeds, as well as paintings of watermelons, also have been discovered in Egyptian tombs built more than 4,000 years ago, including King Tuts,” wrote Strauss. “One tomb, in particular, stands out. The watermelon depicted in the image is not round like the wild fruit. Instead, it has the now-familiar oblong shape, suggesting it was a cultivated variety.”

The simple reason for their cultivation was that they were filled with water and could be transported and easily stored in harsh desert climates. They’re found in tombs because a pharoah needed water for his long journey in their afterlife. Apparently, the Egyptians breed the bitter taste out that had been a trait of wild watermelons. Strauss wrote that watermelon growers began selectively breeding for other traits. “In that respect, the tomb painting of the oblong melon, which is shown resting on top of a food platter, reveals a clue to how the melon was changing. Since it is being served fresh, it must have been tender enough to cut up and eat. Gone was the hard flesh and the need to pound it into a watery pulp.”

Around 500 BC the watermelon spread from Africa to Mediterranean countries. The Greeks ate watermelon as did the Romans. Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder described watermelon as an extremely cooling food.

Hebrew texts about giving tithe to the priests for distribution to the poor speak of laying watermelons (called avattihim) flat individually and not stack them, as the rinds are notoriously fragile. “By the third century (AD), the watermelon had graduated from desert crop to dessert,” wrote Strauss. “And if sweet watermelon were in Israel, they had likely spread across the Mediterranean.” The watermelons are described as having a yellow interior, and then a yellow-orange fruit. Through selective breeding, the watermelon gradually began to take on its red hue.

The first color sketches of the red-fleshed, sweet watermelon in Europe can be found in a 14th-century medieval Italian manuscript, the Tacuinum Sanitatis. Some of the illustrations depict the distinctive oblong-shaped, green-striped watermelon being harvested and sold, with a few cut open revealing the red interior.

The watermelon has indeed come a long way in 5,000 years.