Few people realize that watermelon is African. Yet this crop’s wild ancestors are scattered abundantly across the dry wastes of the continent’s semi-arid southern hinterland. In Africa’s Kalahari Desert the undomesticated watermelons are an important source of both food and water. In times of drought African farmers have traditionally relied on them for emergency use. (© Roland Bischoff / botanikfoto)

Livingstone in 1857, “is the kengwe or keme, the watermelon. In years when more than the usual quantity of rain falls, vast tracts of the country are literally covered with these melons. Some are sweet and wholesome, and others so bitter that they are named by the Boers the ‘bitter watermelon.’”

They are also plentiful. Wild watermelons still bespeckle millions of hectares of semi-arid African hinterland. Passersby see them alongside thousands of kilometers of roadsides and bushtracks, particularly in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana and Namibia. But few who spy the tiny nondescript orbs lying amongst scraggly vines beside the road or trail can appreciate that, botanically speaking, they are indistinguishable from the big beloved fruit in their own life. The difference is too great to be grasped at a glance. “This is a salutary lesson in the hidden potential of so many superficially unpromising wild fruits,” one of our insightful contributors wrote; “selection and domestication can improve them out of all recognition in a few [plant] generations.”

Although their domesticated descendants have been cultivated for over 4,000 years and were old news to the ancient Egyptians, the progenitors that gave them life basically remain strangers to commerce and horticulture. Now is the time to better recognize these orphans of the wilderness. They have value for both direct and indirect use.

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