What’s Not To Love About Watermelon?

Melissa Welter

            Ice cold watermelon! It doesn’t quite have the appeal in the dead of a North Dakota winter as it does in mid-summer during one of our high-heat, high-humidity days, but anyone who has ever tasted chilled watermelon can attest that it is something to look forward to even when we are buried hip-deep in snow.

            Where watermelon originated and how it came to be appreciated by people of all nationalities is the subject of this paper. The history, genetic make-up, breeding practices, and the nutritional quality of watermelon will be presented and discussed.


            Watermelon is thought to have originated in the Kalahari Desert of Africa. The first recorded watermelon harvest occurred nearly 5,000 years ago in Egypt and is depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphics on the walls of their ancient buildings. Watermelons were often placed in burial tombs of kings to nourish them in the afterlife.

            From there, watermelons spread throughout countries along the Mediterranean Sea by way of merchant ships. By the 10th century, watermelon found its way to China, which is now the world’s number one producer of this mouth-watering fruit. China’s neighbor to the north, Russia, is also a major producer of commercial watermelons, and also produces a local wine from this fruit In the 13th century, watermelons had spread throughout the rest of Europe via the Moors.

            In 1615 the word “watermelon” first appeared in the English dictionary, according to John Mariani in his book, “The Dictionary of American Food and Drink.” Southern food historian, John Egerton, believes watermelon made its way to the United States with African slaves as he states in his book, “Southern Food.”

            Currently, the United States ranks 4th in world-wide production of watermelon. Forty-four states grow watermelons commercially, with Florida, Texas, Georgia, Arizona, and California consistently leading the country in production.

            Watermelon is now a year-round staple in households the world over. With more countries than ever importing and exporting watermelons, it is easy to find the sweet, healthy and refreshing fruit just about any time of year.

The Watermelon Family:

            As a member of the cucumber (Cucurbitaceae) family, watermelon (Citrullus lanatus) is related to the cantaloupe, squash and pumpkin, as well as the obvious, cucumber. Watermelons can be round, oblong or spherical in shape and feature thick green rinds that are often spotted or striped. The range in size from a few pounds to as high as ninety pounds.

            While we commonly associate a deep red-pink color with watermelons, there are in fact, varieties that feature orange, yellow, or even white flesh. Most watermelons have seeds that are black, brown or white, while some of the newer hybrids are actually seedless.

            Unique to this family are the thick, leathery rinds which gives the ripened fruits the technical name of “pepos.” This species of plants are usually monoecious with the pollen-bearing (staminate) flowers and seed bearing (pistillate) flowers on the same plant. The pollen is heavy and sticky and is therefore not wind-borne, but carried by flower-visiting insects. Poor fruit set can often be traced to a lack of sufficient insect activity or inclement weather at the time of pollen reception on the stigma. Commercial growers usually have bee hives located at or near their fields to assure sufficient activity. Home gardeners may have to resort to hand pollination to assure good fruit set if there is insufficient bee activity on their property.

            Perhaps the most fascinating historical aspect of watermelons are the seedless (triploid) varieties. The modern triploid watermelon (with 3 haploid sets of chromosomes) are unable to produce viable gametes during meiosis, and much to the delight of growers, their ripened melons are seedless. When you purchase seedless watermelon seeds, there will be two kinds of seeds; one for the fertile diploid plant and one for the sterile triploid. The triploid seeds are larger, and both types are planted in the same vicinity. Male flowers of the diploid plant provide the pollen for the triploid, but, in spite of the pollination, no fertilization takes place. It is the simple act of pollination that induces the fruit development without fertilization, making the triploid watermelons seedless.

Fresh, Chilled Watermelon; How Good It Really Is For You:

            Nothing is more refreshing on a hot summer day than eating a slice of chilled watermelon but, few think of the nutritional qualities that this thirst-quenching fruit provides. While it is true that watermelon is 92% water, it is also packed with some of the most important antioxidants in nature. Watermelon is an excellent source of vitamin C and a very good source of vitamin A, notably through its concentration of beta-carotene. Pink (the pinker the better!) watermelon is also a good source of the potent antioxidant, lycopene. These powerful antioxidants travel through the body neutralizing free radicals, which if unchecked, can cause a great deal of damage by oxidizing cholesterol, causing them to stick to blood vessel walls. It is this accumulation of cholesterol that can lead to heart attack or stroke. Asthma sufferers have also benefitted from consuming watermelon by reducing the severity of asthma attacks, allowing them to breath without each breath being taken in panic.

            A cup of watermelon(who’s going to stop with just a cup?) provides 19.5% of the daily value (DV) for vitamin C, and through its beta-carotene, 13.9% of the DV for vitamin A. Watermelon is also rich in B vitamins for energy production, especially vitamins B1 and B6. And, because the water content is so high and lower in calories than many other fruits, watermelon is considered a nutrient-dense fruit (48 calories/cup), delivering more nutrients per calorie, which is an outstanding health benefit.

            The carotenoid, lycopene is also an excellent anti-cancer agent. In contrast to many other food phytonutrients, whose effects have been studied only in animals, lycopene has been repeatedly studied in humans and found to be protective against a growing list of cancers. These cancers now include prostrate cancer, breast cancer, endometrial cancer, lung cancer, and colorectal cancers. A study that was published in the November 2003 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that in patients with colorectal adenomas, a type of polyp that is the precursor for most colorectal cancers, blood levels for lycopene were 35% lower compared to study subjects with no polyps. In the final analysis (multiple logistic regression) low levels of lycopene in blood plasma increased risk by 230% and with smoking add, 302% (December 31, 2003)

Getting The Best There Is, and Enjoying It Most:

            Nothing, of course, beats growing your own watermelon for freshness and good health. In the store or at a farmer’s market choose a melon that is heavy for its size and with a rind that is relatively smooth, and that is neither overly shiny or overly dull. The ground or underbelly side of the melon should be displaying a distinctly contrasting yellow or creamy tone. Melons lacking these characteristics are immature and should not be selected, as they will not ripen further after harvesting.

            Refrigeration is a necessity for preserving the taste and freshness of watermelons. Whole ones seldom fit into a refrigerator, but with a couple of good cuts, the bulk can be divided and covered with plastic wrap, and squeezed into most refrigerators.

            In preparing to eat a watermelon, wash it with a wet cloth or paper towel, then cut it into handy pieces for eating enjoyment. Many people spit out the seeds, but they are completely edible and add good fiber to the diet.

            Watermelon can be used in fruit salads, pureed with cantaloupe and kiwi, with a little plain yogurt and made into a good summer-cooling soup. In Asian countries, watermelon seed can be roasted, seasoned and eaten as a snack food, or ground up as a component of cereal or bread.


1997 - Reader’s Digest; “Foods that Harm, Foods that Heal” An A-Z Guide to Safe and Healthy

 Eating. Pages 27, 347

2003 - Time, Inc. “A to Z Health Guide” How to Live Better - and Longer Page 116

1995 - “Vegetable Gardening In The Midwest”(University of Illinois) Pages 129-130

1995 - “The Concise Encyclopedia of Foods and Nutrition”, CRC Press. Pages 679; 1114