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Amazing Heirloom Melons

 

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

The taste of melonsat 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.

 ‘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.

Most of these old-time varieties aren’t native to North America, but became part of our common heritage when immigrants brought the seeds here, hidden in their suitcases or sewn into their hems, aprons, or hatbands. These precious, portable possessions spelled breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and the comforts of home in an uncertain New World. Among “the finest varieties of fruit, native and foreign, cultivated in this country” by 1845 were melon and watermelon — the sole herbaceous annuals included in The Fruits and Fruit Trees of America, a treatise written by the illustrious American horticulturist Andrew Jackson Downing.

Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), one of America’s premier nonprofit seed saving organizations, gave me the chance to play a small part in agricultural history when they sent me two cardboard boxes of melon and watermelon seeds in the spring of 2000. Opening them, I realized I had in my hands a gift of vast magnitude, an irreplaceable wonder: the seeds of yesterday. SSE had only a few seeds of those varieties left, and I knew they trusted me to take care of them. Still, I was afraid something would go wrong, and even had a nightmare about someone stealing the plants from my garden. I’ve since regained my composure and have harvested hundreds of fruits from those seeds — and hundreds from seeds sourced elsewhere.

Reticulatus Group

In the United States, muskmelons are colloquially referred to as “cantaloupes” or “American cantaloupes,” but they differ from the true types. The hallmarks of this group of melons is the reticulated or net-like tissue that covers the skin, and the musky flavor of their ripe orange flesh. The French refer to reticulated melons as melons brodés or melon écrits, meaning melons with embroidery or writing. Downing considered the muskmelon to be “the richest and most luscious of all herbaceous fruits.” We’re less familiar with the exquisite green-fleshed muskmelons that once flourished in home gardens from the 19th to the early 20th century, though they were some of the most popular at the time.

‘The Old-Time Tennessee’ produces an orange flesh with abundantly sweet flavors. 

American farmers, or “practical breeders,” created a diverse array of cultivars with distinct personalities and delicious aromatic flesh, well adapted to home and market gardening or short-haul shipping. According to geneticist T. W. Whitaker and pathologist Ivan C. Jagger of the Bureau of Plant Industry in the 1930s, “Natural crossing in mixed plantings furnished these growers with an abundance of material for selection.” Professional breeders took the ball and ran with it, making mass selections and deliberate crosses to enhance melons’ shipping and flavor qualities and disease resistance. By 1937, several hundred muskmelon cultivars were growing in the U.S., although many were similar. New forms gradually replaced the old. Today, Americans buy and consume more muskmelons than any other type of melon. Two muskmelons, the ‘Jenny Lind’ and the ‘Anne Arundel,’ received their names from favorite figures in history.

The ‘Jenny Lind’

This melon was named after “the Swedish Nightingale,” Jenny Lind, a coloratura soprano promoted to stardom in the U.S. during the early 1850s by the prince of showmen, P. T. Barnum. Already a sensation in Europe, Lind bewitched American audiences a hundred times over, from New York to Natchez. She was exalted for her voice, piety, and charitable giving, but when she broke her contract with Barnum and married her pianist, the spell broke too.

Although Jenny Lind’s glory faded, memorabilia flourished. She was immortalized in song and poetry, and her bust, with bertha collar and brooch, adorned everything from shawls to glass whiskey bottles in the shape of a calabash. Strawberry, potato, and carnation cultivars also bore her name. According to Lind’s contemporary, Dr. Robert P. Harris of Philadelphia, the ‘Jenny Lind’ melon was named and introduced around 1846, and is said to be developed from an old local cultivar of Armenian origin, likely called ‘Center.’

The ‘Jenny Lind’ muskmelon gets its name from the famous “Swedish Nightingale,” Jenny Lind, one of Europe’s most beloved singers of the 1800s. It’s highly regarded for its sweet flavor and stunning green color. 

Yet, Jenny Lind didn’t sing in Philadelphia until the fall of 1850, and was little known in the U.S. prior to that date. Since it’s unlikely a new melon would’ve been named in her honor before then (indeed, the ‘Jenny Lind’ melon doesn’t appear in the 1848 to 1850 Landreth seed catalogs), if it did exist before 1850, it was likely grown and sold under another name. However, it’s always possible that Dr. Harris may have been ahead of his peers in Philadelphia, and already knew of Lind before her arrival in the city! Because of these conflicting reports, the exact timeline for this melon’s namesake remains a juicy mystery.

Ethan Platt, current president of Landreth’s, recently showed me the company’s 1858 Rural Register and Almanac, wherein ‘Jenny Lind’ is noted to be “of diminutive size but high flavor” and similar to the green-fleshed ‘Nutmeg’ and ‘Citron’ melons “of the old musk or cantaloupe variety.”

One of the melon’s claims to fame is the “outie” belly button at its blossom (or “stylar”) end. Burpee touted the button as the best part of a new and improved strain known as ‘Jersey Button’ — “a delicious morsel” — in its 1902 farm annual. This bit of whimsy helped make the cultivar a bestseller for years. These days, extremely protruding or broad stylar scars, such as on the ‘Jenny Lind,’ are rare. Considered undesirable, the trait has been bred out of modern melons.

The ‘Anne Arundel’

When Griffith and Turner of Baltimore commercially introduced the ‘Anne Arundel’ melon in 1890, it was already well-known to the denizens of Anne Arundel County. Both the melon and the place where it grew were named in honor of the 17th-century Countess Anne Arundell of Wardour. Anne became Lady Baltimore after marrying Cecil Calvert, the first Lord Proprietor of the Maryland Colony.

The precise origin of the ‘Anne Arundel’ melon is lost to history. For all we know, it might’ve arrived in Anne Arundel County with the first European settlers in 1649. Or it could’ve been grown even earlier by the Algonquin tribes along the Patuxent River; according to A Relation of Maryland, published in London in 1635, native people grew muskmelons elsewhere in Maryland.

The ‘Anne Arundel’ hails from Maryland, but was prominent in many still-life paintings of the famous Peale family of Philadelphia in the early 1800s.

Tobacco was the main crop in the Chesapeake colonies until the Civil War. When slavery ended, farmers diversified, and Anne Arundel County became the nation’s strawberry capital. Muskmelons were grown in private gardens, but didn’t appear much in the marketplace until after 1870. Starting with improved green-fleshed muskmelon cultivars, such as Burpee’s ‘Netted Gem’ (1881), Landreth’s ‘Baltimore Market’ or ‘Acme’ (1884), and ‘Anne Arundel’ (1890), these melons were then more widely grown and shipped farther afield.

It’s time to reintroduce the simple culinary pleasures of the past to a new generation. In order to make further crop improvements and keep us well-supplied, breeders need heirlooms for their quality components. Fortunately, much remains of our vanishing food heritage. Many countries maintain gene banks with valuable germplasm for use by breeders. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located above mainland Norway, provides the ultimate safety net for gene banks conserving different crop cultivars. Nonprofit organizations, such as SSE, have a role to play as well; their mission is to conserve and promote America’s culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.


Amy Goldman is a gardener, author, artist, and advocate for seed saving, plant breeding, and heirloom fruits and vegetables. This is excerpted with permission from her book The Melon (City Point Press).

Published on Feb 10, 2020

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