The Ancient Gardener's Instructor: Dispatches from Wesley Greene
September 11, 2013This week we have harvested the last of the watermelons which are typically the final fruits of the summer garden. The watermelon is also one of the most ancient of the culinary fruits. A native of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa, it was well known to the Egyptian pharaohs by 2000 BCE and was one of the lost luxuries lamented by the Israelites in their flight through the desert (Num. 11:5). It was from the middle east that the watermelon was first introduced to Europe, likely by way of Moorish Spain.
It was almost certainly the Spanish who first introduced the watermelon to North America which was then disseminated by the native population. Watermelons were recorded as far west as the Mississippi River in the present state of Illinois by Father Jacques Marquette in 1673 who wrote that they “are excellent, especially those with red seeds.” These early citations led many authors to assume that the watermelon was an American native.
While the watermelon is a rare amongst the English for their colder climate will not support its cultivation it has always been among the most prized of fruits in the American colonies. The Swiss botanist, Peter Kalm, while traveling between Philadelphia and Canada in 1748 – ’49 recorded: “In English North American colonies every countryman plants a number of watermelons which are eaten while the people make hay, or during the harvest when they have nothing upon their stomachs in order to cool them during the great heat, as that juicy fruit seems very suitable for refreshment.”
Judging the ripeness of a watermelon is an art that only experience can teach. There are indicators that will help the gardener determine their fitness, such as the tendril at the first leaf junction from the fruit turning brown ant the belly of the watermelon turning yellow but experienced gardeners still rely upon the tone of the fruit when rapped by the knuckles. A ringing, hollow note will signify its readiness for the table.
For a complete examination of the watermelon and its care you are invited to peruse Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg way, 18th century methods for today’s organic gardeners (Rodale Press) .