< Vegetables



Citrullus lanatus

Before the 20th century, the watermelon was so common a feature of summer life, it became a culinary cliché—the finale of every picnic, the children’s treat at every 4th of July festivity. When ripe, it required little or no preparation for consumption—just chilling and cutting. The luscious slices (92% water, 7% sugar, & 1% other matter) quenched the laborer’s thirst and beachgoer’s yearning for something sweet and refreshing. Grown throughout the republic, it did best in the sandy stretches of the south. The African ancestors of the antebellum slaves that grew it there were in all likelihood the persons who carried the first Watermelon seeds from the Old World to the New.

Classified as a vegetable by seed brokers in their catalogues, yet regarded as a fruit by the public, the watermelon inspired legal comment about its status. In 1891 when southwestern importers attempted to avoid taxation of imported watermelons as green vegetables by claiming the tariff exemption for ‘green fruits,’[1] the courts found that they were indeed “green fruits.” They have been regarded as such by the legal system ever since.

Taxonomically, Watermelons belong to the family Cucurbitacea, a valuable grouping of edible plants that encompasses squashes, gourds, cucumbers, and melons. Because of the promiscuous tendency of these vegetables to interbreed, any vegetable/fruit variety must be grown separately if one wishes to preserve its character.

Americans in the 19th-century generally believed Asia to have been the homeland of watermelon,[2] and noted its cultivation Asia, Europe, and Africa. The African genesis of the plant only became accepted in the horticultural community in the last half of the 20th century. In the 1830s Russian melons enjoyed particular favor among horticulturists, but the modern market melons developed in the 1840s for the most part in South Carolina, bred by Col. A. G. Summer and his circle of experimentalists.

The watermelon favors sandy soil. Fields are plowed and harrowed, with soil clumped into hills spaced about 8 to 10 feet apart. Each hill will support a single watermelon plant. The soil of each hill is intermixed with manure (stable dung having been the most common manure until Peruvian guano supplanted it among market farmers). Restricting manure to the hill prevents it being employed by weeds. When the temperature regularly reaches 65 degrees Fahrenheit, the grower can plant the hills with seed—six to ten buried and inch and a half deep on the flattened top of the mound. Because of March frosts, growers often did successive plantings spaced a week apart. After sprouting, the seedlings are culled leaving on the healthiest to continue growing. The hills should be carefully weeded. When the vines begin to run, they should be disturbed as little as possible.[3] From planting to harvest, the cultivation period averages three and one half months, weather willing. Pickers determined ripeness by the rough feel of the pores of the watermelon’s skin on its belly—the place where it rested on earth. If the skin was sufficiently tough there that one’s thumbnail did not penetrate the skin, it was ready to be cut. Market melons were harvested before being fully ripe.

In the antebellum period the “Mountain Sweet Watermelon” was the market favorite, but inattention to growing discipline led to cross pollination and the decline in its flavor. In the Varieties section the several market varieties that supplanted it in the 1850s are listed. Because of the family’s penchant for hybridization, hundreds of watermelon varieties were developed over the decades. Most proved short-lived novelties. A number of squash-flavored watermelons developed for pie-making enjoyed a brief vogue in the 19th century. Those listed below had enduring worth.

Attempts were made from the 1820s through the end of the 19th century to commercialize the manufacture of watermelon sugar. Since the melons were 7% sugar the process simply entailed boiling the water from watermelon pulp and skimming the extraneous matter. The closest to success that any manufacturer managed was a bottled watermelon syrup produced in Charleston that was on the market for a period in the 1880s.

1. Liberty Hyde Bailey, Annals of Horticulture in North America for the Year 1892 (New York: Rural Publishing Co., 1893), pp. 140-41.
2. William Kenrick, The New American Orchardist (Boston: Russell, Odiorne, & Metcalf, 1835),
3. Dr. A. Oemler, Truck Farming at the South (New York: Orange Judd, 1884), pp. 132-34.

Black Spanish    History

Fruit of large size, roundish or oblong, generally more or less distinctly ribbed; skin very dark or blackish-green; rind half an inch thick; flesh deep red (contrasting finely with the deep-green colo of the skin), fine-grained, sugary, and of excellent flavor.

Bradford Watermelon    History

The Bradford is a highly prized South Carolina Watermelon. Size, large. Form, oblong. Skin, dark green, with gray, longitudinal stripes mottled and reticulated with green. Rind, not exceeding half an inch in thickness. Seed, yellowish white, slightly mottled, and with a yellowish-brown stripe around the edge, Flesh, fine red to the centre. Flavor, fine and sugary. Quality, "best."

Carolina Watermelon    History

Fruit of large size, and of an oblong form, usually somewhat swollen towards the blossom-end; skin deep green, variegated with pale green or white; flesh deep red, not fine-grained, but crisp, sweet, and of fair quality; fruit frequently hollow at the centre; seeds black. Extensively grown i the southern states.

Clarendon Watermelon    History

This fine Watermelon is also known under the name of the Dark Speckled. It originated in Clarendon County, South Carolina, and, when pure, may at all times be readily recognized by the peculiarly characteristic markings of the seed. Size, large. Form, oblong. Skin, a mottled gray, with dark green, interrupted, longitudinal stripes, irregular in their outline, and composed of a succession of peninsulas and isthmuses. Hind, thin, not exceeding half an inch. Seed, yellow, with a black stripe extending around the edge, and from one to three black spots on each side, the form and number corresponding on the two sides. Flesh, scarlet to the centre. Flavor, sugary and exquisite. Quality, "best."

Souter Watermelon    History

This fine Watermelon originated in Sumter District, South Carolina. Size, large, sometimes weighing twenty or thirty pounds. Form, oblong, occasionally roundish. Skin, peculiarly marked with finely reticulated gray islands, separated by pale green straits, and having irregular, dark green, longitudinal stripes, extending from the base to the apex. Rind, thin, about half an inch. Seed, pure cream white, with a faint russet stripe around the edge. Flesh, deep red to the centre. Flavor, sugary and delicious. Quality, "best." Productiveness, said to be unusually great.

Ravenscroft Watermelon    History

This valuable Watermelon originated with Col. A. G. Summer, of South Carolina. Size, large. Form, oblong. Skin, dark green, faintly striped and marked with green of a lighter shade, and divided, longitudinally, by sutures, from an inch and a quarter to two inches apart. Rind, not more than half an inch in thickness. Seed, cream color, tipped with brown at the eye, and having a brown stripe around the edge. Flesh, fine red, commencing abruptly at the rind, and extending to the centre. Flavor, delicious and sugary. Quality, "best."

Citron Watermelon    History

Flesh of fruit very firm.. Fruit 6 to ten inches in diameter. As compared with watermelons, the citron feels much more solid. The citron is used for making sweet pickles and preserves. It is not eaten in the raw state. The juice of the citron is added in equal parts to that of such fruits as peaches, cherries and others whose juices will not "jell" by themselves to make them produce jelly. The citron has a large amount of pectin in the cell walls. This is the substance in fruits which causes their juice to "jell."

Frozen Melon (Table Talk 1892)    History

First cut from one side of the melon a sort of three-cornered piece, then on the other side the same, forming as it were a basket with a handle, the same as you would make orange baskets. Now, take all the ripe portion and put aside in an earthen bowl; trim the handle and basket in good shape, then if you like cut out little tiny pieces at the top, either point or scallop it. Remove the seeds from the pulp and with a silver spoon chop and mash the pulp of a goodsized watermelon, add one cup of powdered, sugar, stir until the sugar is dissolved, turn this mixture into a freezer and freeze. When ready to serve put back into the watermelon rind and serve at once. It will require the ripe portion of two watermelons to fill the basket full. In a small family a basket might be made from half the rind, making a long handle; .taking from the bottom a thin slice to make it stand. Table Talk 7 (Philadelphia, 1892), p. 331.

Watermelon Frappe (Mrs. Owens’ New Cook Book 1899)    History

Select a large ripe watermelon; cut crosswise about a third the distance from the top leaving a strip of rind an inch and a half wide uncut, extending over the top similar to the handle of a pail or bucket. Cut the edge of the rim in sawteeth. Remove pulp and seeds, strain the pulp and to a good-sized melon add about 2 quarts of water and $ pound sugar. Freeze until about half the consistency of ice cream, then pour into the empty melon rind and set on a round block of ice about 4 inches thick. This, in turn, should rest on a handsome salver covered with a folded napkin, the whole decorated with a green vine. Serve with silver ladle in frappe glasses. Very delicious. Frances Emugene Owens, Mrs. Owen’s New Cook Book and Complete Household Manual ( Chicago: Owens’s Publishing Co., 1899), pp. 536-37.

Watermelon Sherbet (Our New Cook Book 1883)    History

Let the melon be cut in half, and the inside of the fruit be worked up and mashed with a spoon till it assumes the consistency of a thick pulp. Introduce into this as much pounded white candy or sugar as may suit your taste, a wineglassful of fresh rose water, and two wineglasses of sherry. Pour, when strained, the contents into a jug, and fill your tumblers as often as needed. This makes a very agreeable drink in summer. Sarah Annie Frost, Our New Cook Book and Household Receipts ( Boston: People’s Publishing Co., 1883), p. 404

Watermelon Sherbet (Mrs. Owens’ New Cook Book 1899)    History

Take a very ripe and very red melon. Save all the water and scrape the red pulp fine. Add water, being careful to have melon enough for a strong flavor. Use 1 pound of sugar to a gallon. Put into a freezer and as soon as it begins to freeze, add the well-beaten whites of 3 eggs to a gallon. Stir often and very thoroughly from the bottom while freezing. If liked sweeter, use more sugar. It will depend largely upon the ripeness and quality of the melon. Frances Emugene Owens, Mrs. Owen’s New Cook Book and Complete Household Manual ( Chicago: Owens’s Publishing Co., 1899), p. 534

Watermelon Preserves (Favorite Dishes 1893)    History

Take a thick rind of a ripe watermelon. Cut into small strips, or any desirable fancy shapes; cut off all the red inside part and scrape off all the hard outside shell. Boil the pieces in water with peach or grape leaves and soda, in the proportion of a dozen leaves and a teaspoonful of soda to two quarts of water. When tender, take them out of the water and put them in cold water that has had half a large spoonful of alum dissolved in it. They will then become brittle and green. Let them soak in the alum water for an hour; then rinse in clear, cold water, and boil in a syrup made of equal weight of white sugar. Boil with them lemons cut in thin slices, allowing one lemon to two pounds of rind. Boil fifteen or twenty minutes. When a little cool, add a little essence of ginger, or if not the essence, boil in the syrup with the rinds a little green or ground ginger tied in bits of thin cloth. After three or four days pour the syrup off and boil down to a rich syrup that will just cover the rinds, and pour it over them scalding hot. Mrs. H. K. Ingram, “Watermelon Preserves,” in Carrie V. Shuman, Favorite Dishes, A Columbian Autograph Souvenir Cookery Book (Chicago, 1893), pp. 113-14.

Watermelon Sweet Pickles (Dixie Cookery 1867)    History

Two pounds of watermelon or muskmelon rinds boiled in pure water until tender. Drain them well. Then make a syrup of two pounds of sugar, one quart of vinegar, half an ounce of mace, an ounce of cinnamon, and some roots of ginger boiled until thick, and pour over the melons boiling hot. Drain off the syrup, heat it until boiling hot, and pour over the melons three days in succession. They are very nice, and will keep two years. Maria Massey Barringer, Dixie Cookery (Boston,: Loring, 1867), p. 45.

Watermelon Molasses (Gardner’s Monthly 1860)    History

Having been engaged the last season in raising watermelons and making them into syrup, I thought a description of my mode of operation might be acceptable to some of your numerous readers. I think that the Watermelon will not make sugar, in consequence of the waxy properties of the syrup when boiled to that consistency; but for the syrup, it has no equivalent for preserving all kinds of fruit with which our country abounds.— It is also excellent for table use. The process is very simple. I express the juice by hand, by putting the core of the melon in a sack; then boil to a proper consistency in a copper kettle. From experiments which I have made, I think that we cannot get a better return for our ground than by this process. I made from one acre of ground, the last season, eighteen barrels of syrup. I sold this for eighty cents per gallon, which made four hundred and forty-six dollars for my labor. Now I am aware that this will seem incredible to a great many who have not tried the experiment; but nevertheless, it can be done, and if any one doubting it will call on me, I will convince him of its entire practicability. C. H. Ross County, Ohio. The Gardner’s Monthly & Horticultural Advertiser 2 (Philadelphia, 1860), pp. 285-86

Watermelon Syrup (American Garden 1890)    History

Until quite lately, the watermelon has been the legitimate prey of the small boy and the mainstay of the doctors. But times are changing, and a splendid syrup is now being made from it. The syrup is made by chopping up the melons and squeezing or pressing out the juice (about a quart being taken from a fair-sized melon). After boiling the juice rapidly for several hours the red coloring matter coagulates, rises to the surface and is skimmed off in the form of a foam, leaving the juice as clear as distilled water, and of a pale amber color. Boiled a little longer, it thickens into a rich, fruity-flavored syrup, perfectly clear and the color of quince or apple jelly. California Fruit Grower, American Garden 11 (New York 1890), p. 180.