The Ancient Gardener's Instructor: Dispatches from Wesley Greene
July 24, 2013It is now, at the height of summer, that we celebrate the most delectable product of the kitchen garden; the melon. There are several varieties of melon but it is generally agreed amongst gentlemen who pride themselves in the culture of this estimable esculent that the cantaloupe is the finest example of this fruit yet discovered. Its name originates from a province in Italy where it was first introduced from Armenia in the 15th century. As was explained by Philip Miller in The Gardeners Dictionary (1754), “This Sort of Melon has been long cultivated in Cantaleupe, a little District about ten Leagues from Rome, where the Gardeners have been very long famous for producing the best Melons in Italy.”
The cantaloupe differs from the musk melon, which is the variety grown by most modern gardeners, in having pronounced ridges and, in most varieties, many warty protuberances. The Philadelphia nurseryman, Bernard McMahon, described it in 1806: “The true Cantaleupe or Armenian warted Melon, is very scarce in the United States; its fruit is large, roundish and deeply ribbed, a little compressed at both ends, the surface full of warted protuberances, like some species of squash.”
While the true cantaloupe (Cucumis melo, var. cantelupensis) may have been scarce in early 19th century America, it is almost nonexistent today, being entirely supplanted by the netted or musk melon (Cucumis melo, var. reticulatis) and the winter melons such as the honey dew and Crenshaw (Cucumis melo, var. inordrus).
The true cantaloupe also differs from the common musk melon in the method that one appraises its fitness for harvest. The musk melon is judged to be ripe when cracks form around the base of the stem allowing the stem to easily separate or slip from the fruit. Most cantaloupes do not readily slip so ripeness must be decided by the experience of the gardener.
For a more thorough examination of the Cucumis genus you are encouraged to examine Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg way, 18th century methods for today’s organic gardeners (Rodale Press) .