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Amazing Heirloom Melons

Discover two delicious melons and a few juicy details about their namesakes.

| Spring 2020

 santa-claus-melon
 The ‘Santa Claus’ melon is sometimes referred to as the ‘Christmas Melon.’ It’s particularly popular in Spain.

The taste of melons at their peak, oozing honey-like sweetness, is incomparable. And no other homegrown “fruit-vegetable” seems to kindle as much love and laughter as a watermelon. Picture yourself with friends and family at a farmhouse kitchen table or in the backyard, picnicking in the shade of a catalpa tree. Everyone is sated from Sunday dinner. There’s a pause in activity, and a somnolent lull. But soon enough, it’s time for dessert: an heirloom watermelon, harvested fully ripe and allowed to cool overnight in a tub of water. When thumped, it makes a dull punk sound. When cleft with a knife, it snaps and rumbles, cracking open to reveal an expanse of crisp and juicy red flesh with glistening black seeds.

The ‘Santa Claus’ casaba was my first melon love. For weeks, I’d waited for the fruit to ripen, until one morning it was ready, lolling in the garden like some outlandish hot air balloon, its wrinkled yellow skin covered with dark-green splotches. I dropped to my knees and cut it open to taste its heavenly flesh. Since then, I’ve formed passionate attachments to many other melons and watermelons. I’m devoted to ‘Old-Time Tennessee,’ ‘Zatta,’ ‘Branco,’ ‘Chamoe,’ ‘Crimson Sweet,’ and ‘Wilson Sweet,’ just to name a few.

In late spring, scores of these heirloom melon and watermelon transplants crop up in my garden, blanketed by tents of spun polyester cloth atop black plastic mulch. They’re protected from the elements as well as marauders by an application of diatomaceous earth, a spritz of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), and tender, loving care. What more can I do but pray for sun? After plants have put on growth and the first hatch of insect pests has passed, I remove the coverings and let the plants sprawl and flower, until the garden becomes a verdant sea of fruit-bearing vines.



blacktail-mountain
 ‘Black Mountain’ melons are aptly named for their black outer coloring; despite its dark appearance, the flesh inside is as bright and sweet as can be.

The seedless bowling balls that pass for watermelons and the underwhelming honeydews in grocery stores across America don’t begin to display the diversity of these crops. Heirloom fruits and vegetables are treasures worth knowing, growing, and saving. While supermarkets devote whole aisles to modern diploid hybrids — many of which are wonderful — heirloom varieties are hard to find. Untold numbers have become extinct. I can’t count how many times over the years someone has tasted one of my sweet dessert melons or watermelons and said, “This brings back memories of my childhood,” or “I’m in ecstasy.” Until they sampled heirlooms, they didn’t know what they were missing. If we sow and grow those seeds, we’re nourished; if we harvest more seed, we ensure the next year’s bounty. But it’s not the way we commonly feed ourselves today.



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