The history of cultivating a more attractive melon
My kids will likely never participate in a watermelon-seed-spitting contest, although I remember that being a part of 4th-of-July celebrations growing up. My kids would probably be confused to see all the dark seeds in a watermelon from just a couple of decades ago. We’d likely all be confused when confronted by a watermelon from a couple of centuries ago, loaded not only with seeds but also with a mostly white interior. With the contemporary version of the fruit looking so different from its origins, you have to wonder why we ever got started domesticating it in the first place.
The seeds of cultivation
Watermelons are natives of Africa, growing in a variety of forms in the wild. These wild plants can grow sweet, bland or even bitter fruit, but they’re probably not direct relatives of what we’re getting in the grocery store or farmers market. The common ancestor of the two species probably dates back at least as far as the Bronze Age, when seeds were found in Egyptian tombs, indicating a degree of cultivation. By the 7th century, the melons were being raised in India and China, later being brought to Europe by the Moors.
It’s been popular throughout its cultivation. By 1600, Europeans were growing the white- to pink-fruited melons in their gardens. We don’t have any physical samples of this phase of watermelon domestication, but based on visual evidence in the form of oil paintings, it’s been surmised that the fruit were probably sweet and tasty, just not red. The red coloring comes from lycopene, which is the same pigment that gives tomatoes their appealing color. This process of course didn’t happen naturally, but is the result of generations of selective breeding by humans. This trend towards redder flesh makes sense, as we generally prefer red food over other options.
Would you prefer purple?
This isn’t to say that modern watermelons are completely homogeneous. Various breeds of watermelon grow with orange or pink flesh, coupled with ranges of green to purple to black rinds. Some plants are even bred for especially thick rinds, intended for pickling.
As the domestication of watermelon progresses, we might start looking for China for clues about how the fruit will be further transformed. China consumes the lion’s share of the world’s watermelon, and so the preferences of those farmers will most likely shape the melon’s future.
Source: A Renaissance painting reveals how breeding changed watermelons by Phil Edwards, Vox