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Mouth-Watering Watermelon

By Audrey Stallsmith

Citrullus lanatus

Mornings before daylight I slipped into cornfields and borrowed a watermelon, or a mushmelon, or a punkin, or some new corn, or things of that kind. Pap always said it warn't no harm to borrow things if you was meaning to pay them back some time; but the widow said it warn't anything but a soft name for stealing, and no decent body would do it.

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Needing a watermelon for our Fourth of July celebration this year, I purchased one when I was in town about a week earlier and left it in my car’s trunk in the garage until the holiday.  With any other fruit, this probably would have been a recipe for disaster, but watermelons keep well under cool and shady conditions if their rinds are uncut and unblemished.

That’s probably why those melons were so popular in arid ancient cultures, where they could be stored to help quench thirst during the dry season. Suffering from a surfeit of manna in the wilderness, the children of Israel longed after the succulent foods they had eaten in Egypt, "the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick."

Israeli horticulturalist Harry Paris believes that watermelon's ancestor probably was a smoother-skinned variation of the citorn melon.  Called gurum or gurma (Citrullus lanatus var. colocynthoides) it was native to the deserts of Egypt and the Sudan.

It originally would have had a tough and bitter yellowish flesh, softened, sweetened, and reddened over years of careful  selection.  The watermelon may have hit its apex back in the mid 1800s with the introduction of the Bradford variety, very tender of rind and more than two percent higher in sugar than other types.  That melon reportedly was so good that the farmers growing it often had to protect it with guns, poison, and even electric shock.

It also had an intriguing story behind it, as the seeds of one of its parents were obtained by an American officer named John Lawson, captured by the British in the late 1700s and sent to the West Indies.  On the way, the Scottish captain of Lawson’s ship gave him a piece of watermelon that he liked so much he kept the seeds from it, planting them in Georgia after his release.

Eventually a Nathaniel Bradford  from South Carolina crossed the Lawson variety with 'Mountain Sweet' to get the Bradford melon.  Its thin skin almost did it in during the 20th century, though, because it didn’t ship well. 

It's fortunate that other varieties are more hard-shelled, since watermelon pulp can provide you with a greater amount of lycopene than raw tomatoes do.  It also has been used to cool the itch of poison ivy rash as well as to quench thirst--being over ninety percent water.  A tea brewed from the melon's bruised seeds reportedly works as both a diuretic and vermifuge, i.e. expels fluid and rids the body of worms. 

If you like, you also can make pickles from the rind.  And, according to an old Tom T. Hall song, there “Ain’t but three things in life that’s worth a solitary dime.   That’s old dogs and children and watermelon wine.”


Citrullus lanatus image is by A. Stahl from unpublished Studies on the Flora of Puerton Rico, courtesy of