Watermelon is thought of as an especially American food. Although Americans seem to have a special fondness for Citrullus lanatus—watermelon’s botanical name—we don’t have a unique claim to it by any means. It didn’t even originate in the New World.
Watermelon has been grown since prehistoric times and has been known worldwide for centuries and centuries. Archaeological evidence shows the Egyptians were cultivating watermelon more than 5,000 years ago. Watermelon appears in ancient Egyptian wall paintings; its seeds and leaves have been found in Egyptian tombs.
Despite its long Old World history, scientists didn’t know where watermelon first grew. Guesses included parts of Africa, southern Asia, India, and Italy. But the genecenter (the place where a plant arose and often still can be found growing in the wild) had never been located.
Historically, watermelon had long been cultivated in countries along Mediterranean and other trade routes. To add to the mystery, there are words for watermelon in Arabic, Berber, Hebrew, Greek, Sanskrit, Sardinian, and Spanish, but of the languages with a word for watermelon, none of the root words are related or similar—evidence of each culture’s long familiarity with the fruit, but no help at all in discovering where watermelon might have originated.
Watermelon was known to have been a well-established, beloved, cooling fruit in Northern Africa, the Near East, and the Middle East for many centuries. It reached India by the 9th century C.E., according to The Cambridge World History of Food.
Watermelon didn’t reach China until the 10th century, most likely arriving by the Silk Route. There its name hsi-kua (pronounced “she-gua”) translates as “melon-from-the-west”; clearly it was considered an imported fruit.
Watermelon long had been a popular fruit in Russia and in the Central Asian lands along the Silk Route. During the 16th-century reign of Ivan the Terrible, a Russian book of domestic rules and instructions—including cooking—provided instructions for preserving (pickling) watermelon rinds, turning it into a year-round food.
The Moors are credited with introducing watermelon into southern Europe (especially Spain and Italy), where the vine took root easily, became extremely popular, and began moving northward. In Central Europe, Hungarians seem to have eaten watermelon since at least the 12th century; its name there is görögdinnye, which means “Greek melon.”
Medieval manuscripts created in several countries have illustrations of watermelons. In Northern Europe, monk and scholar Albertus Magnus might well have provided the first written description of watermelon in the 13th century, according to Sylvia Lovegren in her book Melon: A Global History. By the end of the 16th century, European botanists had made up for lost time by describing and cataloging a number of varieties, among them exotic watermelons with white flesh, others with green seeds, and some where all the seeds were white. Watermelon, often spelled “water melon” or “water-melon,” finally made it to Great Britain at the end of 16th century—1597—where, after its introduction, it mostly was grown in hot houses (greenhouses) as a specialty fruit. Food writer John Mariani reports that the word “watermelon” first appeared in an English dictionary in 1615.
The vine spreads to the New World
Europeans and Africans brought watermelon to North, Central, and South America. Enslaved Africans are credited with distributing watermelon seeds widely throughout the eastern part of North America, the West Indies, and Brazil. The first written record of North American cultivation dates from 1629 in Massachusetts. “Watrmillion” was growing on Virginia’s Eastern Shore in 1647, as a court document that year refers to “watrmillion Ryndes.” Spanish colonists and American Indians in Florida are recorded as growing watermelon in the mid-1600s. The Jesuit explorer Father Marquette found watermelon being grown by American Indians in the Mississippi [River] Valley in 1673. A decade later, the Spanish brought melon seeds to today’s California.
Watermelon seems to have quickly made its mark in American gardens and on American tables. Thomas Jefferson is recorded as having watermelons among his Monticello plantings, where he was pleased to note that even the best melons in Parisian markets couldn’t come close to those grown in Virginia. The reason, Jefferson concluded, was that in France “there is not sun enough to ripen them and give them flavour.” Mark Twain loved them, too, declaring that watermelon was “king by the grace of God over all the fruits of the earth.” Two of his characters, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, snuck away from Aunt Sally’s house one night and “fetched up in watermelon patch,” where they happily “talked and smoked and stuffed watermelon as much as two hours.” Henry David Thoreau had the reputation of growing the biggest and juiciest watermelons (and other melons) in Concord, Massachusetts. On August 29, 1839, Thoreau gave the first of what was to become a series of annual melon parties.
In the United States, most enslaved Africans were settled in the Southern colonies/states, where the soil and climate proved especially conducive to watermelon. Perhaps this is why for many years watermelon was stereotyped negatively as being associated with rural, Southern blacks. In fact, watermelons are so inexpensive they always have been a tasty summer treat that both blacks and whites, no matter how poor, could afford. Having a “watermelon feed” or “watermelon cutting” was a fun, low-cost way to gather friends and family for a good time. It’s no surprise such gatherings were especially popular during the Depression—a large watermelon goes a long way. One Southern nickname for a watermelon is “Depression ham” and another is “August ham.”
A possible solution
But while the watermelon vine was encircling much of the world, the genecenter of the plant was still a conundrum. Scientists remained perplexed. Many countries claimed to be the original home, but archaeobotanists posited that wherever the watermelon plant originated it would be found growing in the wild—and that location hadn’t yet been found. Then, in the 1850s, the world believed it learned the origin of the mysterious melon; the dessert watermelon came from a desert. That’s when the British missionary and explorer David Livingstone—yes, the one on the receiving end of the line “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”—came across watermelon vines growing wild in the Kalahari Desert of Southwestern Africa. (It’s not recorded whether he uttered, “Watermelons in the wild, I presume?” when he found them.)
“But the most surprising plant of the Desert is the Kengwe or Keme, . . . the Water Melon,” Livingstone wrote. “In years when more than the usual quantity of rain falls, vast tracts of the country are literally covered with these melons.” In addition to coming across what might well be watermelon’s genecenter, he found that wild watermelons served as an important—indeed sometimes the only—source of water for many during African dry spells. Another English explorer, Major Edward Keith-Roach, who mapped part of Africa in the early 1900s, made the same discovery, reporting that watermelons saved his life. He wrote that, for six weeks during a drought, he relied on watermelons as his sole source of water, suffering little ill effect. Writing in a 1924 issue of National Geographic about his survival experience, the oh-so-British wanderer also seemed compelled to note that tea made using strained watermelon juice was “sheer nastiness.”
Because of its high water-content, round shape, and fairly small size, Livingston’s “surprising plant” of the Kalahari was a well-known, easily found and portable water source to those living in and around the dry areas. Indeed, dessert watermelons of the desert long had served as what’s been dubbed “botanical canteens.” Additionally, in several traditional African cuisines, according to The Cambridge World History of Food, watermelon’s flesh and seeds, which are rich in edible oils and protein, were cooked for meals.
But was it THE source?
For more than a century and a half, Africa’s Kalahari Desert was thought to be where watermelon originated. But then continued research came across new information. Yes, Africa, was the source of watermelon, but probably not Southwestern Africa. True, it was long-established in the Kalahari, and it grew there in the wild, but most likely it had traveled there and taken root. It originated in another part of the continent.
In 2015, the path of watermelon history refocused from Southwestern Africa to Northeastern Africa when Harry S. Paris published a lengthy research article in Annals of Botany. A horticulturalist at the Agricultural Research Organization in Israel, he’d spent years piecing together various source clues about what he calls “sweet dessert watermelon.” Among these, in addition to already known discoveries in ancient Egyptian tombs, he considered evidence that watermelon seeds were found at a 5,000-year-old settlement in Libya and in what are described as foundation deposits of a temple in Sudan dating from 1500 B.C.E. He wrote, “Wild and primitive watermelons have been observed repeatedly in Sudan and neighbouring countries of northeastern Africa.”
Watermelon’s “Eureka!” moment had arrived. Paris concluded, “The diverse evidence, combined, indicates that northeastern Africa is the centre of origin of the dessert watermelon, that watermelons were domesticated for water and food there over 4,000 years ago, and that sweet dessert watermelons emerged in Mediterranean lands by approximately 2,000 years ago.”
In 2021, the origin point was further narrowed when genetic analyses discovered that the Kordofan melon from Sudan might be the closest relative to watermelon. The smallish green melon, which has the same name as the region of Sudan it comes from, is described as having a non-bitter, whitish pulp. The breaking melon-ancestry news first appeared in a paper by a group of authors in PNAS, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (See https://www.pnas.org/content/118/23/e2101486118). When the New York Times reported the paper’s findings, it summed up the current state of knowledge this way: “The Kordofan melon and the modern watermelon most likely arose from a long-ago wild melon, the results suggest. Farmers would have realized this melon was sweeter than others and bred it into new, tasty varieties,” (See https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/28/science/watermelons-genome-origins.html.)
Why the confusion?
Part of the confusion over watermelon’s backstory was because it was such an old, established plant, as well as because historically there was lots of confusion about melon classifications. But it was also because watermelon changed over time. The “sweet dessert watermelon” known today wasn’t nearly so sweet when it started out. Originally it probably was the “water” part of watermelon that was the attraction. Over time, and once it was purposely planted and cultivated — especially if it was the now-known-of Kordofan melon — Paris believes it began being bred for traits, one of the first of which was to make it sweeter, then probably sweeter still. By the 3rd century, watermelon definitely was a sweet dessert, according to Paris, although its flesh might have been a yellow-orange color then.
Now, even more centuries later, breeders of domesticated watermelon are still breeding for various traits. Sweetness, size, and color—as well as seeds or no seeds—all remain in play today. What we know for sure is that the hot-weather plant has become beloved wherever it grows, providing an enjoyable break on scorching days and sweltering nights.