With Southeastern watermelon production kicking into high gear, it’s time to take a look at America’s favorite summertime fruit, it’s history, and some of the promotional efforts that will keep consumers lugging them home for the next 100 days.
Watermelon — Citrullus lanatus — is a member of the cucumber family that almost certainly has its origins in ancient tropical Africa. Botanists believed watermelon originated in China until explorer Dr. David Livingston found sweet, bland and bitter varieties of the fruit growing wild in central Africa in the 1860s, a fact he – presumably — reported to Henry Stanley, the man who famously found him after a six-year disappearance. (“Dr. Livingstone I presume?”)
More history in a minute. First up, let’s take a look at the National Watermelon Promotion Board’s “100 Days of Watermelon” summer Instagram contest. Just grab a photo – or several — featuring watermelon sometime between now and Sept. 5 and upload to Instagram #100DaysofWatermelon. With prizes for 14 weekly winners and a grand prize ultimate watermelon package coming at the end of summer, it’s a great promotion to feature at retail.
Now back to the history part. Anthropologists know watermelon was farmed as early as the second millennium BC in the Nile Valley of Egypt. Seeds have been found in the tombs of the Pharaohs, including Tutankhaman (you probably know him better as King Tut).
By the 10th century AD, watermelons were being cultivated in China. By the 13th century, Moorish invaders had introduced the fruit to Europe in the area that is now Spain and Portugal. By the 16th century, even-earlier explorers had introduced Native Americans to watermelon, and early French explorers found them growing in the Mississippi Valley.
In 1615, the word “watermelon” made its first appearance in an English dictionary. And
many sources say Massachusetts colonists who arrived on the Mayflower were growing watermelon as early as 1629.
By 1664, there were reports of Native Americans farming watermelon in Florida. The first recorded watermelon growing in the Midwestern states was noted in 1673. Connecticut joined the list by
1747, the Colorado region came aboard by 1799 and the Indiana-Illinois area was first mentioned as a watermelon producer in 1822.
Today, more than 1,200 varieties of watermelon are grown around the world, ranging from miniatures to 200-pound monsters that are the product of the Carolina Cross, which produced the current world record watermelon (262 pounds) and provides fruit that typically weighs between 65 and 150 pounds.
The modern evolution of the watermelon runs from USDA botanist Charles Frederic Andrus’ Charleston Gray, which revolutionized the industry in 1954 by providing a tougher shell and the now-familiar oblong shape that made stacking possible, to Professor Hitoshi Kihara’s first successful seedless commercial varieties in the 1950s, to the square watermelons now grown in Japan’s Zentsuji region in glass boxes, to the Densuke watermelon, another Japanese native that is solid black, grown only on the island of Hokkaido and sells for as much as $250. One of the first Densuke watermelons, grown in
2008, was auctioned off for a staggering $6,300.