The Summer Icon: Watermelon

AUG 12

The watermelon is an iconic summer fruit, a juicy, refreshing treat that no picnic or barbeque should be without. While it is undoubtedly an American staple, its roots are an ocean away and centuries old. The watermelon is indigenous to the Kalahari Desert of Africa, where botanists have found its wild ancestors still growing. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics depict stories of their ancient harvest and watermelon seeds were often included in the tombs of kings as a source of afterlife nourishment. In the desert and semi-desert areas, watermelons were a vital source of water for the natives during dry periods. Presently, some districts in Africa still cultivate watermelon for this purpose.

From North Africa, to the Mediterranean region, then to India and China in the 10th and 12th centuries and to the Americas in the early-mid 1600s, watermelons were traded and cultivated across the globe. With this continental cultivation, you can bet there is a diversity of uses for this fruit. Here, we like to eat watermelon as a dessert, fresh and cold. In some areas across the US, the rind is preserved and eaten as a sweet pickle. Going back in our nation's history, Civil War confederates boiled watermelon to make a molasses for cooking. In southern Russia, watermelon juice is used to make beer. In Iraq and Egypt, the flesh of the melon is used for animal feed. In Asia, the seeds are roasted and salted and eaten as a snack.

To enjoy this fruit fresh from your yard, here are some watermelon growing tips:

  1. Try a small or mid-size variety that will easily fit into a refrigerator and provide just enough fruit for you and your family to enjoy.
  2. Plan your garden: Watermelons need space; vines can reach up to 20 feet in length!
  3. Mix composted manure and topsoil into your dirt to prepare the bed.
  4. Watermelons need a long growing season (at least 80 days) and warm ground temperatures for seeds to germinate and grow (70 degrees F or warmer, 80 degrees F is ideal).
  5. Sow 6 to 10 watermelon seeds in a hill (mound of dirt), pushing them 1 inch deep in the soil. Space the hills about 3 to 4 feet apart.
  6. After planting, keep the soil moist and watch for sprouts!
  7. After sprouts have reached a height of about 4 inches, mulch around your plants to protect the vines and discourage weeds.
  8. Once flowers appear, you can decrease watering. Their roots are now moderately deep and watering infrequently is okay unless there is a dry spell.
  9. Watch for insects and weed your garden regularly.
  10. When you are ready to harvest, test for ripeness: Give it a thump; you are listening for a dull sound in return. Then check the underside of the melon where it rests on the ground. It should be a pale yellow color, indicating it is ripe and ready for harvest. Enjoy!

From the deserts in Africa to your gardens (or fridge) in America, the watermelon has become a summer icon. While the traditional watermelon wedge will put a smile on anyone's face, if you're looking to turn heads, fancy watermelon carving is the name of the game. Get some creative ideas here!