Heirloom Watermelon Varieties
Discover which heirloom watermelon varieties to grow in your garden.
October 10, 2013
By William Woys Weaver
Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by William Woys Weaver is the culmination of some thirty years of first-hand knowledge of growing, tasting and cooking with heirloom vegetables. A staunch supporter of organic gardening techniques, Will Weaver has grown every one of the featured 280 varieties of vegetables, and he walks the novice gardener through the basics of planting, growing and seed saving. Sprinkled throughout the gardening advice are old-fashioned recipes — such as Parsnip Cake, Artichoke Pie and Pepper Wine — that highlight the flavor of these vegetables. The following excerpt on heirloom watermelon varieties was taken from chapter 39, “Watermelons.”
To locate mail order companies that carry these heirloom watermelon varieties, use our Custom Seed and Plant Finder. Check out our collection of articles on growing and harvesting heirloom vegetables in Gardening With Heirloom Vegetables.
A Brief History of Heirloom Watermelon Varieties
Botanists have found what are believed to be the wild ancestors of the cultivated watermelon in Southwest Africa. This is an annual vine that hangs its survival on its ability to take up large amounts of water during a short rainy season and then “hibernate” over the dry season, when the vines die and the thick-rinded fruit lies scattered in the sun. Months later, the water stored in the melons provides the seedlings with a source of moisture as they burst forth from the fruit in anticipation of the oncoming rains. Curiously enough, this cycle reenacted itself in my own pantry some years ago.
It happened that one fall I had an overabundance of citron watermelons that I stored, as I normally do, in my kitchen pantry, where it is cool and dry. I still had many melons left by the following June. Within days of the summer solstice, as though on cue, the melons split open to reveal a mass of seedlings resembling green spaghetti. A few of these seedlings made their way through the cracks in the rind and would have grown across the room toward a small window had I not intervened. Such is the hardy tenaciousness of the watermelon plant.
The citron watermelon, a close relative of the melon we eat, is not very popular today, yet it is one of the oldest forms of the cultivated watermelon now found in American kitchen gardens. In Botswana, in southwestern Africa, the Bantu peoples raise a type of citron watermelon called the Tswana Melon, which is cut up, dried, then used in stews during the winter in much the same fashion that American Indians used dried pumpkin. This may be one of the most ancient uses of watermelons, aside from a ready supply of fresh water in what is otherwise one of the most arid regions of Africa south of the Sahara.
The Bantus can thus prove that Galen, the ancient Greek physician, was wrong when he wrote in his treatise On Food and Bad Juices that watermelons could not be dried like other fruit. On the other hand, there is some question about what is meant by “watermelon” in classical antiquity. Andrew Dalby has suggested in Siren Feasts (1996, 79), a study of ancient Greek foods and eating customs, that the sikyos pepón of the old Greek authors was indeed a watermelon. The two words literally mean a large, sweet cucumber. This may tell us something about watermelons in that distant age: oblong, white-fleshed, perhaps white-seeded as well. Or it could refer to the chate melon of the Egyptians, a melon that also fits this general description and would certainly not lend itself to drying.
In any case, by the Roman era, watermelons of several sorts were cultivated and remained under cultivation in Mediterranean countries throughout the Middle Ages. Appreciation of the watermelon was especially high among the Arabs, and even more sophisticated among the Turks, who organized their watermelon vendors into a guild in Constantinople. Trade with Alexandria brought the Venetians in contact with melon varieties from all over the Middle East, and the Moors in Spain established several sorts on the Iberian Peninsula before their departure in the 1400s. The Black Spanish watermelon brought to Philadelphia in the 1820s was a lineal descendant of those old Moorish varieties.
Watermelons reached the New World from two sources: from Spain and Portugal, and directly from Africa. The earliest references to watermelons in what is now the United States suggest a Spanish — West Indian route rather than a direct link to Africa. Watermelons are documented in Massachusetts in 1629, described as red-fleshed, with light green skin and black seeds. The Swedish geographer-engineer Peter Lindström (1925) reported seeing red-fleshed watermelons along the Delaware River in 1642, noting that they were eaten raw or pressed to make a cooling beverage, a type of watermelon cider. Additionally, watermelon juice was boiled to create a form of ersatz molasses, which it resembles in color and taste. This form of molasses was popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in early America because it was cheap and easily made. By the nineteenth century, it was considered a poverty food.
A study called “Syrup Made from Watermelons,” published by the Commissioners of Agriculture of Virginia (1901, 135), tried to rehabilitate watermelon molasses as a profitable farm product. The idea did not attract many followers. Watermelon vinegar, however, was at one time well appreciated in the South and often took the place of more expensive wine vinegars. I have included an old recipe for it in the sketch dealing with the Rattlesnake watermelon because “Rattlesnake Vinegar” is what one requires for an authentic Georgia Cracker salad dressing.
Not only did the watermelon reach our shores early in the colonial period, it was quick to find its way into the gardens of the American Indians. Early travelers into the interior of the country often remarked with surprise about the variety and quality of the watermelons they encountered in out of the way places. Sweet, red-seeded varieties are known from the 1670s, and among the Indians of Illinois an oblong white-fleshed variety was recorded as late as 1822. The Curtis Showell White Flesh watermelon, available only through Seed Savers Exchange, may be a modern survivor of that old strain.
Some of the earliest commercial varieties of watermelon sold in this country appeared as early as 1802 in the seed lists of Bernard M’Mahon of Philadelphia. They included two types, the Large New Jersey Watermelon (a red-fleshed and a yellow-fleshed sort), and the Carolina Long Watermelon, which also came in red-and yellow-fleshed forms. Boston seedsman John B. Russell listed three varieties in his 1828 catalog: Carolina Long Watermelon, the Long Island Watermelon, and the Apple-Seeded Watermelon. All of these varieties date from the eighteenth century and none of them are readily available today. The Carolina Long Watermelon, shown in the old woodcut, was oblong in shape and somewhat swollen toward the blossom end. The skin was dark green, with pale green and white patterns. The flesh was deep red, the seeds black. There was a variant form with yellow flesh and white seeds, but the red-fleshed sort was the oldest and considered the “classic” American watermelon. Of all the colonial watermelon varieties, it was the one most likely to have reached this country directly from Africa. It was also the melon that was shipped to northern ports well in advance of local crops; thus its fame was almost universal from Charleston to Boston.
The Long Island Watermelon was a variety favored by market gardeners for the New York market, but it disappeared by the 1860s in favor of other sorts better adapted to the North. Only the Apple-Seeded Watermelon could be grown with success in most northern gardens, primarily because it was small and early fruiting. This sort is believed to be traceable to the earliest seventeenth-century watermelons introduced here, but its origin is unknown, since there do not seem to be any botanical surveys of apple-seeded types that might shed some light on its Old World kinships.
The most common Apple-Seeded Watermelon was red-fleshed. The fruit was round and small, with deep green skin and a very thin rind. The flavor was sweet, the seeds blackish brown and shaped like apple seeds, hence the name of the melon type. Because the plants were hardy and the fruit ripened even in short-season areas, this melon was the most widely cultivated of all the colonial American types. While Fearing Burr (1865, 182) listed only a red sort, the Lancaster Farmer (1870, 185) described a white-fleshed form, remarking that apple-seeded watermelons were an old type rarely seen anymore.
Alexander Watson listed six watermelon varieties in his American Home Garden (1859, 152). These included the Carolina Long Watermelon, the Long Island Watermelon, and the Apple-Seeded Watermelon popular earlier in the century, as well as the Black Spanish Watermelon, the Orange Watermelon (only recently introduced), and the Citron Watermelon. All of these were recommended for American kitchen gardens, although frankly, the first two were mammoth and better cultivated in fields, since there can be only one melon per vine where fruit size is a requirement.
Hawes H. Coleman, an Arkansas gardener who specialized in watermelon culture, discussed a number of southern varieties in the Report of the Commissioner of Patents (1856, 313–14). In particular, he noted his own variety, called the Coleman Watermelon (which he had cultivated since 1827), the Rattlesnake Watermelon — one of the most popular antebellum watermelons in the South — and a fascinating variety called the Bough Watermelon, raised only in the region between Richmond, Virginia, and Baltimore. It was a long, white-skinned watermelon with red flesh and red seeds. Only the Rattlesnake Watermelon is still available today.
Some of the colorful regional varieties like Bough were the result of breeding experiments with exotic imports. It is known from the Gardener’s Magazine (1830, 339) that American and English diplomats stationed in Saint Petersburg, Russia, assembled a collection of watermelons from various parts of the czar’s empire. Fourteen distinct varieties reached this country, one of them with green flesh, yet extremely sweet. The ultimate fate of that collection is unknown, and unfortunately nothing in it even hinted at a melon resembling the popular Moon and Stars watermelon, which some horticulturists believe may have come to this country with Mennonites from Russia.
Fearing Burr’s list of watermelons in his Field and Garden Vegetables of America (1865) is conservative in terms of what existed and reflective of his own prejudice in favor of commercial sorts. Nonetheless, Burr included a fair selection of southern varieties, such as the Bradford Watermelon, the Clarendon Watermelon, the Ravenscroft Watermelon, and the Souter Watermelon, all of which are now unavailable to seed savers. All four of these were also developed or perfected in South Carolina in the period just prior to the Civil War. During that time South Carolina was a testing ground for many early American watermelon varieties, and its horticultural contribution in this regard deserves better recognition.
The cultivation of watermelons is simple — indeed, much less complicated than that of muskmelons, although watermelons are famously sensitive to climate. Hills should be spaced 8 feet apart in light, sandy soil with good exposure to a full day of sun. Two plants per hill is normally recommended, three if the melons are a small variety. Allow no more than three or four fruits per vine, and in order to raise truly large melons, all melons but one must be removed from each plant.
In the North it is better to start the watermelon seed indoors and thin out the best plants into pots so that they can be several weeks ahead when transplanted to the garden. In practice, watermelons should be planted when the ground is warm, essentially at the same time as beans. If the ground is too cold, the seedlings will rot, or in any case, they will not grow much. They will do much better when planted late. Furthermore, if the seedlings are weak, they are far more likely to succumb to cucumber beetles than if they are vigorous. Once established, the vines usually outgrow the beetles. Therefore, it is important to fertilize the young plants well, when it has a far more positive effect on the vines than later in the season. Fish emulsion mixed with water and applied to the hills early in the season is really all the feeding the vines will require.
For the past few years, I have had trouble with all my watermelons due to unseasonable weather. Even though watermelons are tropical, tropical weather will cause most American varieties to abort their female flowers, especially during conditions of drought or excessive humidity. Watering will lessen the stress of drought, but humidity cannot be controlled. Bearing this in mind, I would suggest overplanting so that a few fruits are guaranteed. I have had seasons when I have harvested no watermelons at all, and this is catastrophic for seed saving.
For seed-saving purposes, select only fruit that is truest to type. All varieties of watermelon and citron melon belong to the same species and will cross readily. They must be isolated by at least a half mile. Since I have many rare heirloom varieties, I isolate my melons about one mile, planting part of the crop at Oaklands, a fine old property not far from me. If isolation cannot be accomplished, resort to hand pollinating to maintain seed purity. Watermelons can be grown with cucumbers and muskmelons because they are different species and do not cross.
Watermelon seeds are mature when the melons are ripe, so seed harvesting can be turned into a picnic. A spit bucket and hungry friends are the basic tools for separating seed. After the seeds are collected, wash them thoroughly in clean water, then spread them to dry on screens. After two weeks, the seed should be dry enough to pack in airtight containers. Humidity is an important factor. If the seeds are brittle and snap when broken between the fingers, the seed harvest is ready to store. Properly stored, watermelon and citron watermelon seed will keep five years. Old-timers considered watermelon seed best for planting when it was two years old (shorter vines, better formed fruit). I have not noticed a remarkable difference, but since the weather has not been favorable for the past few years, I cannot say that I have given this a fair trial.
This variety was introduced to the United States from Portugal about 1829 by Henry Pratt of Lemon Hill, a famous mansion in what is now Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. Pratt was a wealthy merchant with horticultural interests whose generosity with seed ensured that this melon was soon known in most parts of the country. It was later called the Cuban Melon by many market gardeners in Philadelphia until the advent of Burpee’s Cuban Queen.
The fruit is squat, slightly oblong, with distinct ribbing. The outer skin is black-green, hence its name. The rind is 1 1/2 inches thick on well-formed specimens. The flesh is deep red, finely grained, and very sweet. The seed is dark brown, almost black. Of all the watermelons listed in this section, Black Spanish was the only variety most consistently recommended for small kitchen gardens in nineteenth-century garden books and the only watermelon discussed by Robert Buist in his Family Kitchen Gardener (1847, 73–74).
The citron watermelon forms an important subgroup of the watermelon species, and not many American gardeners are aware that there are several sorts. The most common are the red-seeded, generally referred to as the Colorado Preserving Melon in old American seed catalogs; the red-seeded with black speckles, a variant form of the preserving melon; and the green-seeded, often called the California Pie Melon or Texas Pie Melon. All of these were grown extensively in the nineteenth century for making “sweetmeats,” candied melon rind used in fruitcakes, cookies, and puddings.
The use of the citron watermelon in preserving is extremely old and probably evolved out of similar preserves made with the colocynth melon (Citrullus colocynthis) known since classical antiquity. The colocynth melon preserved in honey or sugar was used exclusively as an internal medicine; in large quantities, it is poisonous. Literary evidence from the 1400s suggests that citron watermelons were initially used the same way and only later moved into the culinary realm.
The center of culture of the citron watermelon in Europe was Spain and Portugal; doubtless it was introduced there by the Moors. The Portuguese remain to this day the masters of candied fruits; the finest-quality candied citron melons are to be found in Lisbon. Early French horticulturists often refer to a Portuguese-Spanish connection when citron watermelons are mentioned, and the old French name for the melon also points to this origin: citrouille d’Espagne à confiture. Linguistic evidence in several languages suggests that the art of preserving these melons in sugar moved out of Spain in the mid-1500s into France and other parts of Europe. Happily, this very early variety of red-seeded citron watermelon is still available through Seed Savers Exchange.
One of the earliest depictions of the red-seeded variety appeared in the Florilegium of Camerarius, a manuscript dating from the 1580s, now in the library of the University of Erlangen in Germany. It shows a ripe melon with a slice removed. The Abbé Rozier, writing in 1785, described this melon under its other old French name, pastèque à confiture. In every case, the melon is associated with confectionery (confiture), not with a fresh fruit. Indeed, none of the citron watermelons make pleasant eating in the raw state, since they are rock hard and taste somewhat like an insipid cucumber. It is this lack of flavor that recommends them for sugar work; when they are cooked in sugar with lemon rind or fresh ginger, the melons absorb the taste of the flavorings. Once candied, the melon can be cut into a vast array of fanciful shapes that were once popular in the ornamentation of banquet foods.
In colonial America the citron watermelon was used as a substitute for the true citron, a tropical fruit also preserved in sugar. Since citron watermelons were easy to grow, prolific, and cheap, they offered an alternative for cooks who could not afford the imported fruit. But the citron watermelon also offered other practical applications, namely as a winter melon for pies and puddings. Both the red-and green-seeded sorts can be stored for long periods of time in dry pantries. The green-seeded variety is generally larger in size and softer-fleshed than the red-seeded sort. It is also more like an Armenian Cucumber in texture and flavor. Therefore, it can be used like a cucumber in salads or like a Chinese winter melon (dong gwa). Shredded, it resembles saifun noodles (transparent rice-starch noodles) when cooked. Diced in stir-fries, it resembles zucchini. As it ages in storage, the rind of the melon changes from marbled green to yellow, and the flesh mellows in texture. It can be sliced like apples for pies, shredded for puddings, or cooked in sugar for preserves. Most citron watermelons will last up to six months in storage, but by June they will sprout according to an internal clock, so it is pointless to keep them beyond March or April.
My great-grandmother made large quantities of citron preserves for the farmer’s market in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and for sale in Philadelphia at the Reading Terminal Market. I published one of her recipes in America Eats (1989, 66–67), noting that cooks and kitchen gardeners appreciated the keeping qualities of the citron watermelon, since it could be held back until early winter when the major fall canning and preserving was over.
Both the green-and red-seeded varieties look alike in the garden and will cross if planted in proximity. The thick flesh beneath the rind is the best part for all culinary uses. The placenta (seed mass) is usually too soft for preserving, but can be utilized in pies and puddings. For seed-saving purposes, the melon seeds are ripe when the melon is ready to harvest. Seeds can be gathered over the course of the winter as melons are taken from storage. Seeds from melons that spoil early should be destroyed. The best seed is the seed from melons that keep the longest.
Under the heading “How to Use the Apple Pie Melon,” a contributor to the American Agriculturist (1859, 310) who signed her name “California” provided instructions for making pies with the dark green—seeded variety of citron watermelon. Her directions show how this old melon was used but requires some explanation for the modern reader. Her tartaric acid is the same as cream of tartar, and the consistency of the cooked melon is like applesauce. This is sweetened and mixed with spices, then combined with beaten eggs (yolks and whites separated) and sour cream or milk. The batter is then poured into a prepared pie shell and baked. Her cautionary remark about copper pans relates to the use of acids in metal utensils and the poisonous substances that result from the ensuing chemical reaction. Her advice is as valid today as in 1859.
When ripe, which can be known by the melon turning yellow, or the seed black, remove the seed, pare and slice the flesh in small pieces, and then stew it in water just enough to have it stewed like apples: when done, add sugar, spices, and a little acid. Tartaric acid, or lemon juice, or good vinegar may be used: the latter, however, does not make as good a pie. A tablespoonful of lemon juice to four pounds of melon. I think the best proportion. The quantity of sugar must be in proportion to the acid. Without the acid the pie is tasteless. Don’t put the sauce in a copper vessel.
W. Atlee Burpee introduced this variety in 1881, claiming that it came from the West Indies. In fact, it appears to be related to Black Spanish, except that it is much larger (often weighing over 100 pounds) and differently marked on the skin. The melon is oblong and tapering at the stem end. The skin is striped with dark and light green. The rind is thin, but thick enough for shipping purposes. The flesh is bright red. This is a good medium-sized sort for gardens with room for rambling vines.
There are a number of heirloom watermelons in circulation under the name Ice Cream, but the true Ice Cream of the nineteenth century had white seeds and white flesh. The melon was round, with pale green skin, very early to fruit, and well adapted to cool-climate areas of the country. White-seeded Ice Cream is now difficult to obtain, largely replaced by the black-seeded variety with pink flesh.
According to the American Agriculturist (1871, 111), Henry Dreer of Philadelphia began listing a pink-fleshed Ice Cream that year, and this has long been considered its date of introduction. Actually, the pink sort is mentioned as early as 1868 and may have existed quite a few years before that. The 1910 seed catalog of the Charles C. Navlet Company of San Jose, California, noted that the pink Ice Cream was also sold as Peerless, although I personally would categorize Peerless as a substrain, since it had a redder color than the original 1871 introduction.
Black-seeded Ice Cream was made popular as a picnic melon at the 1876 U.S. Centennial due to its sweetness and medium size, but its thin rind rendered it unsuitable for shipping. The melon is oblong in shape, with grass-green skin. There is very faint mottling on the skin that varies greatly from one melon to the next.
This is a useful old watermelon developed for winter storage. The fruit is round, weighing about 10 pounds, with white-green skin. Dark green markings run in narrow bands from end to end. The flesh is bright red, the seeds black. If stored in a cool, dry pantry, the melon will keep through the winter and thus provide fresh fruit when watermelons are at their worst in the supermarket. The flavor of this melon is not as good as that of many summer varieties, yet if it had a high sugar content, it would not keep well. Fortunately, if the melon is harvested late in the season, yet relatively ripe, it will sweeten during storage.
I know of gardeners who have kept this melon in a refrigerator until the following April, but refrigeration not only suppresses the flavor but will hinder the fruit from ripening further. Therefore, I recommend keeping it in an unheated pantry, the drier the better.
Also known as Monte Christo, this extremely popular watermelon was introduced in 1897 by W. Atlee Burpee of Philadelphia. Its popularity was based on its high sugar content and its lack of stringiness when fully ripe. The melon originated in Texas and took its name from the gardener from whom Burpee acquired it. The melon is oblong in shape, with dark green skin. The rind is thin, so this has never been considered a melon suitable for shipping. The fruit measures 18 to 20 inches in length and about 10 to 12 inches in diameter. This small size makes it perfect for kitchen gardens. The flesh is crisp, sugary, and bright scarlet, the seeds white. Today, there are several strains of Kleckley Sweets, many with substantial differences. None, however, compete with the good flavor of the original.
No watermelon in the seed-saving movement has achieved the status of an icon more universally than this famous variety. Oddly enough, Moon and Stars was almost totally forgotten 20 years ago, only to come back and become one of the most widely grown heirloom watermelons today. Its foremost feature is the yellow patching on the dark green skin. The patches form little dots like stars in the Milky Way, interspersed here and there with large round “moons.” The yellow speckling is also carried through on the leaves of the vines, a genetic pigmentation problem that is now considered a highly decorative trait. It has no effect whatsoever on the flavor or texture of the flesh. There are two basic types, one with bright pink flesh and one with yellow flesh. Recently, an orange-fleshed sort has surfaced, but as with the others, the color neither improves nor detracts from the flavor.
The story of the rediscovery of this long-lost variety appeared in the 1981 Fall Harvest Edition (24–25) of Seed Savers Exchange. After a television interview, Seed Savers Exchange founder Kent Whealy received a call from a gardener by the name of Merle Van Doren who had been preserving the melon in his garden. In 1982 Seed Savers Exchange began making the melon available, and it now ranks as the most heavily listed of all the watermelons in the yearbooks. The name of the originator of the Moon and Stars watermelon is not presently known, although Peter Henderson & Company of New York bought the commercial rights in the 1920s. The firm released the melon in 1926, noting that its developer called it Sun, Moon, and Stars. To quote the company’s 1926 catalog: “We do not, however, offer seeds of this new melon to our friends because of its appearance, but for the reason that its ‘meat’ has such a delicious taste, and because this variety can be successfully grown in most parts of the United States.” There is a great deal of oral history surrounding this melon, but the fact is, Moon and Stars is not very old as heirlooms go. It appears to be a variant form of Black Diamond, with better disease resistance, and of course the famous speckles and spots. Aside from flesh color, there are now two distinct shapes, one squat, the other oblong. Both types are slightly lobed, the oldest strain more like a nutmeg in shape. The seed is black. Since the melon is small like Kleckley Sweets, it is ideal for gardens with limited space.
Fearing Burr (1865, 186) noted that this melon was extremely popular in the Middle States, certainly since the 1840s. The American Agriculturist (1868, 103) regarded it as a melon raised almost exclusively in New Jersey for the Philadelphia and New York markets and often sold (incorrectly) as Ice Cream. It was a popular market melon because it shipped well and for some reason, its ripeness was more easily ascertained by rapping than with many other sorts. The melon is large, somewhat pear shaped, with dark green skin marbled in different shades of lighter green. The rind is about 1/2 inch thick, the flesh bright red or scarlet. The seeds are reddish brown. There is also a yellow-fleshed strain.
Rattlesnake is one of the most famous of all watermelons grown in the South. It was developed in Georgia, presumably in the 1830s, and is often called Genuine Georgia Rattlesnake. A subvariety or selection known as Augusta Rattlesnake was considered the best strain in terms of flavor. Elsewhere in the country, the melon was often called Southern Rattlesnake or Gypsy Oblong.
True Rattlesnake is indeed oblong, almost cigar shaped, with light green skin. Wavy stripes of dark green running lengthwise create a striking pattern resembling the skin of a timber rattler, hence the colorful name. The flesh is scarlet pink, the seeds dark brown. Typical specimens weigh 30 to 40 pounds. Due to the shape of the melon, it could be easily stacked and for this reason was considered an ideal shipping melon, especially for northern markets. Melons that were damaged or could not be shipped because they were too ripe were often converted to watermelon vinegar. The following recipe for watermelon vinegar is taken from the American Agriculturist (1873, 266):
We had a very great quantity of melons last season, and after we had cut out their crimson cores for eating, scraped the shells, from which we gained a large amount of juice. This we carefully strained, and put into jugs with small glass bottles in their mouths. We set the jugs out into the sun, and in time had a fine-flavored, clear, strong, white vinegar. The vinegar at a certain stage will be very bitter, but when perfected loses this and acquires a true vinegar taste.
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Photos and Illustrations Courtesy William Woys Weaver.