(see also MELON)
A native of Africa, this ground-hugging vine (Citrullus lanatus = C. vulgaris), cultivated for its melons, managed early on to get around the globe with a great deal of agility. It reached the Middle East, India, and what is now Russia in prehistoric times, was consumed in Egypt and ancient Persia some 6,000 years ago, and was later cultivated by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Chinese were growing the fruit by the tenth century A.D.; it entered Europe through Spain with the Moors and reached the Americas via the slave trade.
Wild watermelons, which grow throughout Africa around water holes in the savannas and oases in the deserts, are not much larger than apples. Those that are cultivated (there are some 50 varieties) grow larger, ranging from “icebox” varieties that fit in the refrigerator to the “picnic” sizes that can be large enough to feed a crowd. Watermelons are cultivated worldwide in subtropical, tropical, and temperate climates; in the United States, they have flourished in the warm soils of the southern states as well as those of New Jersey. Most watermelons have red flesh, but some are orange and yellow fleshed, and all contain about 90 percent water and about 10 percent sugar. Watermelon rinds - especially those that are white inside - have traditionally been turned into sweet pickles. Juice from the fruit is bottled commercially and drunk fresh as well as reduced to syrup or sugar. Another use is as watermelon wine.
Watermelon seeds are consumed by humans after drying, roasting, and salting. In Iran and China, such snacks are thought to control hypertension. The seeds are 30 to 40 percent protein, are rich in the enzyme urease, and yield an edible oil (20 to 45 percent) that is used for cooking and illumination. Livestock animals are fed the expressed oilseed cakes and benefit from the high protein content. Like nuts, however, watermelon seeds are high in fat, whereas the flesh is low in calories. Seedless varieties have been developed and are very popular, although more expensive than the traditional seeded varieties. Watermelons provide their consumers with some vitamin C.
Common names and synonyms: American watermelon, Jubilee, seeded watermelon, seedless watermelon.
See in addition: “Cucumbers, Melons, and Watermelons,” Part II, Section C, Chapter 6.
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