In my part of the country, one of the great pleasures of August is the ripening of our local figs, which dot the backyards of homes all around Philadelphia. But out in the countryside, there is another event that draws people from miles around: the mid-August harvest of ‘Orangeglo’ watermelons. Not yet included in the list of heirloom varieties (they haven’t yet reached their 50th birthday), these delicious orange watermelons are nonetheless one of the best-tasting and most unusual melons on farmstands today. Put 10 people in a room with this watermelon and you’ll get 10 opinions about the flavor: Some say it tastes like cantaloupe, others claim mango, and still more will insist that it is a combination of pear and papaya. I can detect all of these, but it has a chameleonlike way of changing flavor depending on what you serve with it. No matter, the taste is exotic, crisp, refreshing and excellent combined with those figs.
The story of ‘Orangeglo’ watermelon goes back to the 1960s in Poolville, Texas, where it was developed by the Willhite Seed Company, which is well-known for its many varieties of watermelon. Over the years, ‘Orangeglo’ has proved itself through its huge popularity with small growers, and remains, hands down, one of the best-tasting of all the orange-yellow varieties. With rich, pumpkin-colored flesh, this orange watermelon possesses one of the fruitiest of aromas and a sorbetlike texture that makes it excellent for frozen desserts. Many watermelons turn bland and insipid when frozen — not ‘Orangeglo!’
Yellow, orange, and even white watermelons are not as unusual as you may think. All of these colors appear in early botanical works dealing with melons, and color variations are rampant in southern Africa (where the watermelon is thought to have originated). What makes ‘Orangeglo’ watermelon special is its taste and texture, and from a health standpoint, its high concentration of beta carotene and vitamin C. The skin of the watermelon also is unusual, a pale lime green with dark green mottling arranged somewhat like stripes. We don’t often see this watermelon in supermarkets because packers don’t consider it a good shipper. The skin is thinner than that of many commercial varieties, and the melons tend to crack easily if struck.
‘Orangeglo’ also is popular for its rampant vines and heavy production of oblong melons weighing anywhere from 20 to 30 pounds. So the payload of melons is worth the effort it takes to plant them. Furthermore, after putting out some questions to my network of growers, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that some have managed to grow ‘Orangeglo’ in Zone 4, where temperatures often are too low for watermelon growing. Thus, it appears that this watermelon is far more adaptable than many, and it will yield fruit with good flavor even in cooler parts of the country.
The distinctive seeds of ‘Orangeglo’ are beige with two brown dots on either side of the pointed end of the seed. So it’s important to be sure you have ‘Orangeglo’ and not some other orange watermelon.
Cultivation of ‘Orangeglo’ watermelons is simple. Start seeds indoors two to four weeks before the average last frost date for your area so you’ll have strong, vigorous plants with well-established roots for setting out in the garden. Do so at the same time you would plant tomatoes (a few weeks after your last frost). You can also directly sow seeds in the soil at this time.
It’s best to plant the melons in hills made of rich compost and sand, and if you want to reduce insect infestations (borers, for example) and improve the flavor of the melons, lay black plastic on the ground around the plants. This warms the soil and holds moisture, and also increases the melons’ temperature which allows them to convert more starches to sugars. Plus, the plastic keeps the fruit from touching the soil. I put a little straw under each melon so the plastic doesn’t overheat and cause the skin of the melon to scald. Give them rich soil and lots of water (to prevent a grainy texture), and you can expect a harvest in 90 to 100 days after planting.
How do you know when a watermelon is ready to harvest? ‘Orangeglo’ cracks pretty easily when ripe. You can almost break it over your knee. If it’s ripe, it will literally pop apart when you cut it with a knife. Another way to tell when a watermelon is ripe is to look for “flea specks” on the bottom. That’s what local Pennsylvania farmers call the clusters of little black specks on the surface of the watermelon skin. The flecks aren’t really from fleas — they’re a fungus or mold that forms on watermelon skin after the sugar inside reaches a certain level. Flea specks on the underside of the melon tell you the melon is sweet.
That sweetness is one reason ‘Orangeglo’ is so nice for kitchen creativity. Of course the watermelon is good raw (some people like it with a little salt), but I think it adapts much better than most other watermelons to pies, sorbets, and other recipes in which it can be processed and yet hold its own distinctive flavor. I have included two recipes you might like to try: Frozen ‘Orangeglo’ Watermelon Tart and Iced ‘Orangeglo’ Watermelon Balls. Both are great for a hot August day. Now, where did I set my piña colada?
William Woys Weaver grows much more than tasty orange watermelons in his Devon, PA., garden. Read about his experiences with heirloom vegetables in 100 Vegetables and Where They Came From.
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