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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III
The melon (Cucumis melo) is one African fruit that is already known around the world. All the warm regions produce it, and every day millions enjoy a melon for breakfast, lunch, or dessert. Certain countries—among them Iran, Pakistan, Japan, and the United States—look upon themselves as “mothers of the melon,” little realizing that the real parent is Africa. Few Americans, Australians, Chinese, Russians, Italians, or Iranians realize that the cantaloupe, muskmelon, or Persian melons on their plates originated from wild (and often impossibly bitter) fruits of Africa’s drylands.
Like ourselves, melon is African in ultimate origin. Quite a few species of its genus, Cucumis, occur across the continent, and the wild plants that gave rise to today’s melon are native in subSaharan eastern tropical Africa. Probably, it was domesticated after other major crops but, when it left Africa, widely different forms quickly arose in various corners of the world.
The crop succeeded first in the drier, longer-season parts of ancient Persia, India, and Southwest Asia (including Egypt); in fact it naturalized in India, which is regarded as a secondary region of novel germplasm. From “Persia” it spread East and West, including all the historic Mediterranean world. It captured the French imagination after reaching there about the fifteenth century; one intellectual produced a treatise enumerating fifty different ways to eat melons, including in soup, fried, or served simply with salt and pepper. The English aristocracy prided itself on the perfect melons their gardeners produced in glasshouses. From Europe, the melon journeyed on westward to the colonies of the Americas.
Melons are reasonably priced and seasonably available across countries that span many climatic zones, such as Russia and the US. While lacking a long shelf life, many varieties are tough enough to ship long distances at cool temperatures. Although most people consider it a sugary nothing in nutritional terms, it can be an important source of some nutrients, especially provitamin A.1 Combined with its welter of flavors, textures, sizes, and colors, melon is one of the most promising fruits for further development.
Despite its international success, however, the crop is far from being exploited to its fullest, even in the areas that know it best. Indeed, today’s
One contributor did write, “Let’s face it, melons are eaten for their taste and sweetness, not nutritional quality. Let’s enjoy it for what it is and be happy we have such a luxury.”