Melons are native to the continent of Africa. Many wild forms of melons and watermelons can still be found there today. Though it is not known when melons were first cultivated, it is believed that prehistoric man may have gathered and saved the seeds of the sweetest melons, and this practice lead to cultivation. Seeds and wall paintings found in Egyptian tombs indicate that melons and watermelons were under cultivation in Egypt at least 4000 years ago.
Melons were introduced into Asia about 3000 years ago. The melon became immensely popular in the region that includes Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, India, south and central Russia, China and Japan. The Greeks and Romans most likely introduced the melon into Europe. Columbus brought melons to the New World on his second voyage, and by 1494 melons were under cultivation in Haiti. By the 16 th century, melons and watermelons were being cultivated through out North and South America.
Melons can be classified in many ways. For the purposes of this discussion, the melon family has been divided into 8 distinct groups: canteloupe, muskmelon, inodorus (winter melons), conomon, snake melons, momordica, dudaim and watermelons.
Surprisingly, in America we do not grow many cantaloupes. We incorrectly call muskmelons cantaloupes. Canteloupes are quite common in Europe especially France where they have been cultivated since the 1400s. Canteloupes are primarily round in shape with prominent ribs and almost no netting. Most cantaloupes have orange flesh. The flesh is usually very sweet and the melons are usually very fragrant.
Muskmelons and their close relatives, Persian melons, are the melons Americans know best. In America, muskmelons are frequently, incorrectly referred to as cantaloupes. Muskmelons are distinctive for the netting that covers most of their rind, and they are usually ribbed. The melons come in many sizes and shapes including round, oval, and cylindrical. The flesh is generally orange and quite sweet, but some varieties of muskmelon and specifically, the Persian melons, can have green or white flesh. Some green-fleshed melons are quite sweet, but most of the green- and white-fleshed melons have a less sweet, but very refreshing flavor.
Winter melons, more correctly known as Inodorus, include the well known casaba, crenshaw and honeydew. These melons are usually quite large with smooth or netted rinds that can be deep green, bright yellow, beige and many shades in between. They come in just about any shape imaginable. The flesh can be green, white, pale yellow or orange and is usually incredibly sweet, but not very fragrant, hence the name Onodorus which means lacking odor. The hard rinds help preserve the freshness of these melons until well into the winter months.
Conomons are two distinct types of Asian melons that are slowly gaining recognition in America. The pale green to white flesh of these melons is not sweet, but the taste is very interesting and well worth investigating. The makuwa uri are really a decorative melon with flesh that is bland to quite bitter. The tsuke uri which look more like fat zucchini or marrow squash are best used as salt pickles.
Flexuosus or snake melons are long, thin, sometimes curved or curled cucumber-like melons. They are also known as Armenian cucumbers. The greenish white flesh is refreshing, not sweet, and they are best used in salads.
Momordicas or snap melons are Asian melons not grown in the United States. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but their flesh is almost universally white fading to a pale green or a pale orange. What is unusual about this class of melons is that their flesh is as fluffy as snow. The flesh is not sweet. These melons are popular in Asia and eaten as a vegetable not as a fruit.
Dudaim as a class of melons are mentioned here because of the Queen Anne’s Pocket Melon. Few dudaim are grown in the United States. The unusual orange and yellow mottled rind is beautiful to behold and the flesh, though not sweet, makes a refreshing condiment in a salad. Other varieties of dudaim are grown in Egypt where they are quite popular.
Watermelons are, generally, the largest of the melon classes discussed here, but, actually, watermelons come in many shapes and sizes. Their rinds can vary in color from blackish green to bright yellow and can be decorated with moon and stars, rattlesnake designs, mottling and stripes. There are varieties that can be grown in Zone 4 climates as well as the deepest South. The flesh can be creamy white, salmon pink, bright orange, pale yellow and deepest red. The flesh varies in sweetness, with some being the sweetest melons available.
Melons require a long, hot, dry growing season, 80-120 days with some watermelons requiring 150 days. Melons like 60 degree nights and 80 degree days and will not tolerate frost. They prefer sandy loam soil. Melons like a slightly alkaline soil. Watermelons prefer a slightly acidic soil. Each year rotate melons and watermelons to different sites in the garden to prevent damage from nematodes or Fusarium. Start melons and watermelons indoors 4 weeks before the last frost date. Watermelon seeds should be soaked for 24 hours before planting.
Before transplanting melons and watermelons to the outside, mix generous quantities of compost or organic fertilizer into the soil. Melons and watermelons grow best when their garden patch is covered with 6 mm black polyethylene plastic. Even though the plastic looks really ugly, it keeps the soil warm, conserves moisture, retards weeds and the disruption that results from weeding and keeps plants clean and free of rot. Melons and watermelons will grow faster and produce more fruit.
Plant melons and watermelons in hills, 3-4 plants per hill, 12 inches apart, with hills spaced 4 feet apart. Fertilize young plants with fish or seaweed emulsion. Melons and watermelons need a consistent supply of water until the fruits are roughly the size of baseballs. After this, do not water unless drought conditions exist. Depriving the plant of water encourages ripening and makes the flesh sweeter and more flavorful. When it is time to harvest, many melons slip from the vine, or sound hollow when rapped with a fist or give off an intensely sweet fragrance. The right conditions change from climate to climate and season to season. The best way to gauge when it is time to harvest is to take a melon and try it.