Sunday, August 7, 2022

August Harvest of the Month: Melons

melons

Melons have been adapted over many years to include a variety of distinct fruits. They can have ribbed, wrinkly or smooth rinds, and their flesh can range from juicy to dry, and sweet to mild. Melons are in the gourd family and are closely related to pumpkins, squash and cucumbers. They prefer warmer climates, and there is a very short window of time that they are available in the Adirondack region- between August and early September. 

While they are similar and have similar names, Watermelon (Citrullus lanatus) is actually a different species of plant than cantalopes and honeydews (Cucumis melo). The biggest difference is that watermelons have seeds distributed throughout the fruit, and other melons like cantaloupes and honeydew, have seeds in a hollow space in the center.

History and Facts

While its unknown where melons were originally a “native” plant, botanists have identified evidence of possibly the earliest melons in Egypt, Iran, India, Central Asia, and Africa. Melons are depicted in ancient Egyptian hiroglyphics. They were also an important food and water source for people traveling long distances across deserts or during dry seasons. It wasn’t until the 15th century that melon varieties started to appear in Europe, when the cantaloupe became popular in Italy. 

Historians have credited Christopher Columbus and other Spanish explorers for bringing melon seeds to the modern day US. We also know that many melons also traveled to the US South with enslaved Africansl. You can learn more about the migration of many traditional African foods like melons to the South by enslaved people in Michael Twitty’s book The Cooking Gene

How Melons Are Grown

Melons thrive in warm climates and need around 100 days of growing time to mature properly, which means growing them in the Adirondacks can be finicky. Hoop houses and greenhouses help give the plants a jump start on growth through the cool spring weather and can protect the plants from early frosts in the fall. Most growers in the northeast utilize black plastic and straw mulch to keep the plants as warm as possible. Melons are annual plants that produce fruit on long vines, much like pumpkins. The vines grow from about 6-12 feet long, and each vine produces about 2-3 melons. 

Once picked, they only stay fresh for maybe a week or two. And once they are cut into, they are only fresh for a few days. There aren’t many ways to preserve melons either, the fruit is rarely frozen or cooked. All the more reason to seize melon season while we have it.

China is the top producer of melons worldwide, followed by Turkey. Together, the two countries produce 50% of the worlds melons. In the US, most are grown in Florida and California. 

Melon Plants, photo provided by Cornell University

Melon Plants, photo provided by Cornell University

Why Local Melons?

Most commercially grown melons are selected, picked, and packed for high-volume production. This means that fruit is generally less ripe, and the varieties grown are bred for durable skins and high sugar content. On the other hand, many small farms grow melon varieties that offer other nuanced flavors, textures and aromas. As always, buying local can have a positive impact on your local economy, environment, and community. 

How to Pick the Perfect Melon

If you’ve never had the pleasure of cutting into a perfectly ripe locally grown melon, this is your year! In the Adirondacks, locally grown melons only start to appear with sweet corn and winter squash, right around when kids start heading back to school. Once the frost comes, they are done. 

How to Know When a Melon is Ripe

  • Ask your farmer! If you’re at a market or retail location, don’t hesitate to ask the staff person if you should eat it right away, or wait a few days.
  • Smell it, does it smell like sweet melon? Then it is ready to eat. If not, give it a few days on your kitchen counter.
  • Color can be deceiving, not all watermelons are striped, not all honeydews are green, and not all cantaloupes are peach-colored. Yellow or white spots on melons are totally normal, they grow on vines on the ground, so they will have a discolored spot called the “belly” on the side of the melon that laid on the ground. 
  • Bigger is not always better, some melons are bred to be smaller, especially varieties that do best in cold climates like in the Adirondacks.

 

Tomato and Melon Salad by from California Cantaloupe

Tomato and Melon Salad by from California Cantaloupe

Recipes to Enjoy Local Melons

Do you need a recipe to enjoy a melon? Simply slice and dig in. If you are looking for something a little more creative to do with melon, some ideas below. 

Where to Buy Local Melons

Before the short melon season passes, head to your local farmstand, farmers’ market, or local food retail location to get your hands on the sweetest summer offerings. Find farmstands, retail locations and markets selling local melons at: adirondackharvest.com/browse 

How do you enjoy summer melons? Comment and let us know below!

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Mary Godnick is the Digital Editor for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Essex County. She lives in the Champlain Valley where she grows vegetables on a cooperative farm plot with her partner and two rescue dogs. You can read more of her work on AdirondackHarvest.com and follow her on Twitter at @MaryGodnick.




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