Melons have been eaten by human beings for thousands of years. Originating in the Middle East and Africa, there is evidence that the ancient Egyptians were cultivating large areas of land specifically to grow melons over 4,000 years ago, and that they were widely used in the ancient world both as a food source and as a commodity in early trade.
Melons were introduced to Europe by the Ancient Romans, and travelled to the New World with the Spanish explorers – probably as a way to help them fend off scurvy during their voyages due to their high vitamin C content. Spanish settlers are recorded as having cultivated melons starting in the mid-16th century in parts of South America.
Botanically speaking, melons are actually a type of ‘false’ berry in the Cucurbitaceae family. They will vary widely in size and color, but the ones most people are familiar with are sweet or semi-sweet fruit with a smooth or mesh-like ‘skin’ and a soft, fleshy inside part that can be consumed. Most melons will have small pockets filled with seeds (which in some cases can be eaten and are actually quite good for you) in the center of the edible flesh, while others will have the seeds spread through the flesh.
Normally a quite hardy and adaptable fruit, today melons are grown in many parts of the world although they prefer sunny, warm climates that feature lots of rain and good drainage. Hundreds of millions of tons of melons are produced worldwide every year, with China accounting over 25% of all melon production. Other major producers include Iran, Turkey, India, Brazil, the United States, Egypt and Spain.
Melons are one of the most nutritious foodstuffs around, and provide humans with a number of essential vitamins and minerals, digestive fiber, and – because of their high water content – also serve as an excellent diuretic. Additionally, many melons are downright delicious and can be eaten alone, as part of a fruit or other salad, or used in cooking other dishes.
So, what are some of the most popular types of melons?
Watermelon is one of the most popular of all the different melon varieties, and is probably the first melon to be eaten regularly by humans. Originating in Northeastern Africa, it has been cultivated and consumed by people for over 4,000 years. Watermelons are the fruit of a flowering, vine-like plant in the Citrullus lanatus species of the Cucurbitaceae family.
Today, about 120 million tons of watermelon is cultivated throughout the world annually, with China producing nearly 70% of the yearly crop and Iran, Turkey and Brazil together accounting for another 10%. In the United States, watermelon is grown commercially in over 40 states; the largest watermelon on record weighed just over 350 pounds and was grown by a farmer in Tennessee in 2013.
There are a very large number of varieties of watermelon – over 1,200, as a matter of fact – and they range in weight from under two pounds to over 200 pounds, but most have a few things in common. They are considered to be a tropical or sub-tropical fruit and grow best in climates where the temperature doesn’t dip much below 80 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius) during the growing season. Watermelons have one of the longest growing periods of any melon, often taking over 90 days to reach maturity.
Since the 1950s, watermelons have been cross-bred and genetically enhanced to improve their ability to grow in colder climates and improve their shelf-life. Seedless watermelons were first developed in Japan during the late 1930s, and today account for over 80% of all watermelon sales in the United States.
Watermelons normally have about a 90% water content (hence the name) and are completely edible – although many people choose not to eat the rinds (even though they are packed with nutrients) because of the bitter taste, and spit out the seeds. The moist, fibrous fruit is usually red, yellow or orange and is quite sweet. Watermelon is very popular throughout the world during the summer months because the fruit will remain cool for a long period of time without refrigeration due to its size.
Apart from being an excellent snack on a hot summer day, watermelon is often juiced, and sometimes mixed with other juices and fermented to produce wine. The seeds can be dried and roasted and consumed as a snack, while the rinds are often used in pickle-making, or stir fried and served as a vegetable with some Asian dishes. Watermelon seed oil is used frequently in cooking in some parts of West Africa.
Cantaloupes (also sometimes called a mush melon, musk melon or sweet melon) are part of the Cucumis melo species of melons. These melons have can have either a netted or smooth peel. There are actually two main types of melons that are commonly called cantaloupes; the European and the North American cantaloupe.
The European cantaloupe (sometimes called a ‘true’ cantaloupe) normally has a smooth, grayish green skin, often with white stripes running throughout the length of the peel. It was first commercially cultivated in Cantalupo, Italy (from whence it gets its name) in the mid-18th century, and is currently grown throughout the world.
The North American cantaloupe, on the other hand, usually has a netted peel that will also sometimes have stripes running through it. Today it is widely cultivated in Mexico, the United States (mostly in the American Southwest) and some parts of Canada; these are the most widely consumed cantaloupe melons in the US.
Cantaloupes are fairly dense melons with a sweet orange flesh that can grow up to about 10 pounds, although the ones we most frequently see at the grocery store will be between four and six pounds. An easily digestible fruit that is commonly consumed both at breakfast and as a dessert (often together with ice cream), cantaloupes are very nutritious, contain numerous antioxidants, and are an excellent source of beta-carotene and vitamins A and C.
Although the peels are not generally eaten, cantaloupe seeds are edible and can actually be quite tasty when roasted.
What is widely referred to today as the honeydew melon is actually the American name for the White Antibes melon that originated in Algeria and has been grown in Southern Europe for centuries. Today, honeydew melons are grown in many parts of the world including Southern California, where the ‘season’ extends from early August through mid-October.
A member of the Cucumis melo species of melons, the honeydew most commonly has a smooth green or yellow peel with a waxy feel and a sweet pale green flesh. It is most often cultivated in semiarid climates and will usually grow to be from four to around eight pounds. Generally speaking, honeydews are not harvested based on their size – as are many other types of melons – but rather on their maturity, color, and shape, which is usually round or oval.
Honeydew melons are sweet, and are often consumed alone as a dessert fruit, or as part of a fruit salad or other medley. They are high in vitamins C and B6; potassium, calcium and zinc; and dietary fiber. Despite their sweet taste, honeydews are quite low in calories and some studies have shown that incorporating them into the diet regularly can be beneficial to people with high blood pressure.
The casaba melon is closely related to both the cantaloupe and the honeydew, but lacks the very sweet flavor of either of those two varieties. Usually a bright yellow in color, the casaba’s taste has been compared to that of a cucumber or Asian pear; it is usually served in salads or as part of a raw fruit platter.
Casaba melons originate from Asia Minor, but are now widely grown in Europe, South America and the United States – particularly in Southern California and Arizona. Because of its longer than average shelf life (at least when it comes to melons) and its longer growing season – particularly in South America – it is generally available in stores at most times of the year.
Casabas have a very thick, yellow grooved rind and a soft, watery white or pale green flesh. They usually grow to about five pounds when ripe. The rind is not edible, and the seeds are usually discarded prior to the fruit being eaten. It is often sprinkled with lemon juice to enhance the flavor whether it is being used as part of a fruit salad or medley, or eaten alone as a snack. They are also sometimes used as an ingredient in cold soups and sauces.
Casaba melons are high in vitamins B6 and C, and are a good source of potassium and magnesium.
Honey Globe Melon
The honey globe melon is closely related to the cantaloupe and honeydew. It has a green and white – or all white – skin that is usually webbed, white flesh and an edible greenish rind. The honey globe melon is usually circular, and is a native of Southeast Asia where it is still most commonly grown.
Among the rarer and more expensive melons you are likely to find – due, in large part to its extremely short harvesting season – the skin of the honey globe melon is quite hard and thick while the flesh is very soft and moist. The almost 20% natural sugar content of the flesh will make it one of the sweetest melons you are ever likely to taste.
Honey globe melons can grow up to almost ten pounds and have a very durable, thick stem that secures them firmly to the vine, even after the melon has ripened. As with many other melons, the honey globe is an excellent source of vitamin C, as well as potassium, but you are likely to have to look fairly hard to find one.
Santa Claus Melon
Also sometimes called a Christmas melon, the jolly-sounding Santa Claus melon is native to Spain, where it is called the piel de sapo – which translates to the less festive ‘toad skin’ melon. Usually having a quite thick green spotted rind, the flesh of the Santa Claus melon is yellow and has a mild, sweet taste not unlike a honeydew melon.
The Santa Claus melon will usually grow up to about a foot in length and be oblong or oval, making it resemble a green American football. Because of its shape, it is sometimes mistaken for a small watermelon. Along with Spain, the Santa Claus melon is widely cultivated in the United States (mostly in California and Arizona) and in Brazil.
High in vitamin C and potassium, due to its milder than average flavor the Santa Claus melon is often eaten as part of a salad, wrapped in thin-cut cured meats (spiced ham, prosciutto), made into smoothies, or offered as part of a wine and cheese platter.
The Santa Claus melon got its name due to the fact that it has an extremely long shelf life which allows it to be shipped from Brazil to Europe and North America during the winter months, and so in times gone by was usually one of the few fresh melons available during the Christmas holidays.
The canary melon – named for its bright yellow skin which, not surprisingly, resembles the color of a canary – is part of the Cucumis melo species of melons. Sometimes also called the Juan Canary melon, it will usually grow to be slightly larger than a cantaloupe and has a smooth, waxy skin and an elongated shape.
The flesh of the canary melon usually ranges from white to pale green and looks a bit like the flesh of a pear. It is less sweet than many other types of melons, but its flavor is quite distinctive and not unlike that of the European cantaloupe. The melon is widely cultivated in South Korea and Japan, as well as South America and the Southwestern United States.
Canary melons are an excellent source of vitamins C and A, with a half-cup serving providing 50% of the daily recommended dosage of both. They are also very high in dietary fiber, and very low in calories.
The canary melon’s distinctive color makes it an attractive addition to mixed fruit trays and platters, while its flavor goes well with milder citrus fruits and melons in fruit salads. Canary melons have a relatively long shelf life, and can be found at grocery stores in many parts of the United States at most times of the year.
The unappetizing sounding gac melon (also called gac fruit, qua gac, spiny bitter gourd, baby jackfruit and a host of other names) is native to Southeast Asia and is widely cultivated throughout China, Vietnam (which is where the name comes from) and other countries in that region, as well as in Northeastern Australia.
Gac melons are usually oval shape; grow to about the size of the North American cantaloupe; and have a dark orange or red spiny outer skin when ripe. The inside of the fruit contains a bright red seed membrane and pale yellow flesh. The gac is not a sweet melon (its taste has been compared to that of an avocado) and is not generally consumed alone. It is often used in rice or curry dishes in the areas to which it is native.
Along with its use as a food, the gac melon is highly valued for its medicinal qualities. Extremely high in both lycopene and beta-carotene, the seeds are used in dietary supplement capsules and sometimes ground into a power to be added to other fruit juices and drinks. The seeds and flesh of the gac have also been widely used in Southeast Asia for topical and internal treatments in traditional and folk medicine for well over 1,000 years. In recent years, gac melon juice has been aggressively marketed in the Western world as a health food/drink.
Another native of the Middle East and widely cultivated throughout Asia, the winter melon is also called the winter gourd, wax gourd, and ash pumpkin. It has a dark green, waxy skin, and resembles a watermelon in both shape and coloration. A relatively large fruit, the winter melon can often grow to over 40 pounds. Today, the winter melon is also grown in Europe, and North and South America
The only member of the Benincasa hispida species of melons, the winter melon gets its name from the fact that it even though it is grown in the warm months of the year it has an extremely long shelf life and can be stored for use in the winter. If stored whole in a cool place, it is not uncommon for this melon to last well over six months
The winter melon has white flesh and seeds and, unlike many other melons, it cannot be consumed raw. This melon has almost no taste of its own, and will usually take on the flavors of the ingredients with which it is cooked. It is often used in curries, soups and stir-fry dishes, and sometimes coupled with various cured hams or mushrooms in soups. It is sometimes candied, or used to give extra body to sweeter dishes. It is also used for making tea.
The sprite melon is another member of the Cucumis melo species of melons. A hybrid of the honeydew melon, the sprite is native to Japan and today is grown in many parts of Asia. In the mid to late 1990s, the sprite began to be cultivated as a specialty melon in North Carolina, and since then has grown in popularity in the southern part of United States.
The sprite is a small, round melon (it will usually grow to around the size of a grapefruit) and will typically weigh between a pound and a pound and a half when ripe. The smooth skin of the melon will normally be a light yellowish color, while the flesh will be either white or a pale green.
Unlike many melons, the flesh of the sprite is very firm and crisp (somewhat like a young pear or an apple), and very sweet and juicy. With about 25% more natural sugar content than many other melons (and a much higher number of calories), the sprite is usually consumed alone as a dessert melon, or as a part of a sweet melon platter or medley.
Another hybrid (this time of the cantaloupe and the casaba) the Crenshaw melon is grown in parts of the Middle East and the Mediterranean, as well as in North and South America. A moderately sized melon, most Crenshaws will grow to be around 10 pounds.
The Crenshaw melon resembles the casaba and has an oval shape and a quite hard, ribbed yellowish-green skin that feels waxy to the touch when the fruit is ripe. The flesh of the Crenshaw melon is a peach-like orange with a large seed-sack in the center of the fruit. Not a particularly durable melon, Crenshaws usually need to be consumed within a week of ripening.
The flesh of the Crenshaw is very sweet, and is often eaten alone as a dessert melon or snack. It is also widely used in fruit platters and salads, and is often wrapped with spiced meats or cured hams as an appetizer. It is also sometimes used – alone or in concert with other fruits – in sorbets. Crenshaw melons can also stand up well to cooking, and are sometimes seared to caramelize its natural sugars and served as part of skewer dishes.
The Korean melon (also called the Oriental melon) is native to East Asia and, not surprisingly, is widely grown in Korea, Japan and other parts of the Far East. There is some evidence that this melon has been cultivated in Japan for over 3,000 years.
Korean melons are usually relatively small – about the size of a papaya – and have a distinctive yellow grooved peel. The flesh is usually white or a pale orange, and has a semi-sweet flavor. The peel is very thin and the seeds (which are contained in three cavities in the flesh) are edible, and given its small size this melon is often eaten whole – like an apple or pear. It is also served as a breakfast or dessert melon, and often made into ice cream, smoothies, or ice pops.
The Korean melon is also often used in traditional and folk medicine. The seeds are sometimes used to treat coughs and indigestion, while the leaves of the vine are made into a paste and used to treat blisters and cuts, as well as help with hair loss.
Also called the snow melon, some varieties of the Hami melon are almost indistinguishable from the North American cantaloupe from the outside. Originating from Hami in Xinjiang province in Northern China (hence the name), the Hami melon is usually round or slightly oval.
There are over 100 variations of the Hami melon. It can have a brownish, yellow, white or greenish-yellow netted skin. The flesh is normally a light orange and is quite crisp and juicy. The flavor is comparable to a cantaloupe, although the Hami is usually slightly sweeter.
Hami melons are rich in vitamin C, as well as iron, phosphorous, and calcium. The Hami is widely used as a breakfast melon, or as part of fruit salads. In Asian cooking, the seeds are often fried to provide added flavor to savory dishes, while the peel is sometimes pickled.
Also called bitter gourd, carilla fruit and bitter apple, the aptly named bitter melon probably originated in India and is currently also cultivated in parts of South America, Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean.
The bitter melon has a dark green, pitted skin and an oval, elongated appearance. The flesh is usually a greenish-white, and has a very bitter, sour taste. It is used in stir fry and curry dishes, soups, and is even sometimes substituted for hops in making beer.
However, bitter melon is more highly valued around the world for its medicinal properties than its culinary value. It has been used in traditional medicine for centuries, and is still widely used today to treat abdominal pain, constipation, coughs, fever, jaundice, kidney stones, fluid retention and inflammation caused by infection. Often made into a medicinal tea, some studies have shown that bitter melon also helps to reduce blood sugar levels, and is effective in the treatment of diabetes.
Considered by some to be the quintessential French melon, the Charentais melon is a distinctive type of cantaloupe developed shortly after the end of the First World War in the Poitou-Charentais region of Western France. It is currently widely cultivated in parts of Northern Africa and, on a lesser scale, the Southwestern United States and parts of Mexico.
With a greenish-white smooth skin and orange flesh, the Charentais is a relatively small round melon and rarely grows to more than three pounds. Similar in taste to the cantaloupe, the Charentais is sweeter and its scent when cut is far more robust.
A fairly delicate melon with a short shelf life, the Charentais does not stand up well to cooking and is almost always eaten raw either as a breakfast or dessert melon, or as part of a fruit salad or medley.
Also sometimes called the sarda, the Galia is a relatively new member of the melon family. Developed in Israel in the early 1970s, in Hebrew the word Galia means ‘God’s Wave’. A hardy melon that is fairly easy to grow, the Galia is currently cultivated throughout Southern Europe, the Middle East, South America and the Southern United States.
The Galia melon will typically be round, and grow to about two pounds. It has a yellowish-orange netted skin and pale green flesh with a unique flavor that is both spicy and sweet. This melon does not stand up well to cooking, and is most often served as a breakfast melon or as part of a fruit platter. It is also sometimes served with seafood and soft cheeses, as well as incorporated into cold dishes.
Also called the spiked melon, jelly melon and hedged gourd, the horned melon is a native of Central Africa that is grown today in some parts of Europe; Australia and New Zealand; Chili and the United States.
The aptly named horned melon has a spiky (or honed) green or orange skin and a somewhat gelatinous green flesh similar in texture to that of a pomegranate. The flavor is quite unique, and is sometimes compared to a combination of lime and banana. It is often used salads, fruit cocktails, salsas, and smoothies.
Although not particularly appetizing to look at, the peel can also be eaten and is very high in dietary fiber and vitamin C.
The kantola melon (also sometimes called the spiny gourd) is a native of the Indian sub-continent and Southern Asia and is still almost exclusively cultivated in those regions.
The kantola melon has a light green spiny skin, and will usually be less than a pound when fully ripe. Related to the bitter melon, the fibrous white flesh is rarely eaten raw and is used in the preparation of curries, stews and stir fry dishes. It is also sometimes pickled.
As is the case with the bitter melon, the kantola has a number of medicinal benefits and is sometimes used in traditional medicine to treat kidney stones, high blood pressure, and has been found to lower blood sugar levels in diabetics.
Golden Langkawi Melon
The Golden Langkawi melon gets its name from the Langkawi district of Northwestern Malaysia, from whence it originated. When ripe, the melon will weigh between five and six pounds.
This melon usually has a smooth golden-yellow skin (similar to the canary melon) and a somewhat oval shape. The flesh is white, and a bit crisper than is found in many other melons. Because of its high natural sugar content, this melon is very sweet and is often used as a dessert melon.
Because it has a relatively short shelf life and harvesting season, this melon can be quite hard to find outside of Southeast Asia.
The cucamelon (also called the Mexican miniature watermelon and mouse melon) is a native of Central America and Southern Mexico, and has been cultivated by the people in those regions since before European colonization of the New World began.
The smallest type of melon you are ever likely to see, the cucamelon grows to be a little bigger than a grape, and looks very much like a tiny watermelon. In terms of flavor, these melons taste like a slightly sour cucumber. They are often eaten directly off the vine as snacks, and sometimes used to flavor traditional cooked dishes.