Store At: Best ripened at room temperature, but will store well for up to a week at 5-10°C
Comes From: Warm humid temperate regions
Seasonality: All year round
Melons are members of a very wide family of trailing annual vines, which also includes squash, pumpkins and cucumbers. They have large broad leaves, stems covered in light prickles and small yellow flowers. The fruit themselves are soft fleshed with a central cavern containing seeds, all surrounded by a thick protective rind.
There are two groups of melons available; watermelons and muskmelons. The watermelon group includes all varieties of watermelon, while the muskmelon group includes all other melons, including Honeydew melons. There are two groups of melons within muskmelons; smooth-skinned and netted, of which honeydew are smooth skinned. Muskmelons typically come into season during late summer and early Autumn.
There are two different types of cantaloupe; true cantaloupes (Cucumis melo cantalupensis), and American Cantaloupes (Cucumis melo reticulatus). There seems to be some amount of argument in the differences; American Cantaloupes are actually a variety of muskmelon, and have a green-grey skin covered in grey netting. True cantaloupes are very similar, but only found in Europe. In Australia and New Zealand, Cantaloupes are called rock melons due to the rock-like nature of the netted skin.
The most common variety is a cantaloupe with orange flesh. Other varieties do exist, with more red or yellow flesh but they are not common, and not as tasty as the common orange fleshed variety.
How do you tell when a cantaloupe is ripe? Well, they should be very heavy for their size, and very fragrant. The stem end should also be slightly soft. If not, it can be kept at room temperature for a few days to ripen it up properly.
Melons will ripen when taken off the plant (provided they are mature enough when picked), and can be ripened in a fruit bowl with bananas. Honeydew melons can be stored either at room temperature or in a refrigerator. They should be brought up to room temperature before eating to get the best taste, and if you want to cut it in half, the other half will store well in the refrigerator for about 3 days. Wrap it up well though, because melons are very aromatic and their smell may penetrate other foods.
The origin of the melon is difficult to pinpoint, with different views on whether they originated in Africa or Asia Minor. It is also difficult to pinpoint when they were first cultivated for food, since melon seeds are very similar to cucumber seeds and difficult to tell apart when found in archaeological digs. The earliest confirmed identifications are in India around 2,000BC, and Egypt about 2,400BC. It is impossible to distinguish what types of melons were around then however.
It is almost certain that the melons grown then were not the ones we know now; the sweet, aromatic melons we eat were not around back then, and were probably more similar to the cucumber (and were indeed classified alongside cucumbers), and were really not that appetising, and in fact, unripe melons back then were noted to cause vomiting and nausea.
However, this eventually changed through cultivation and cross-breeding. By the third century AD, melons had sweetened enough to be eaten with spices, and by the sixth and seventh century they were accepted to be different from cucumbers. However, the first references to sweet, aromatic melons did not appear until the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as a result of hybridization between different varieties.
Melons were first introduced to England around the turn of the sixteenth century, although they were known as "Mylone". One of the first places they were grown was Hampton Court in 1515, and from here they spread around the country, typically in the gardens of rich people, due to their initial rarity.
Melons were taken to the West Indies by the Spanish, and also to America. They rapidly gained popularity with the first settlers in America, and by the 18th century was a much prized fruit at the dinner table, with their cultivation becoming very important.
Today, many varieties of melon are available; unfortunately in the UK we are limited to some typical five or six varieties; hopefully before long we'll start getting some more exotic ones made available, as is recently happening in countries such as America.
Cantaloupe melons were originally named after the commune Cantalupo in Sabina, in the Sabine Hills near Tivoli in Italy, where the Pope used to spend his summers. It was first cultivated at the start of the 18th Century from seeds that were bought from Armenia, part of the believed homeland of melons.
In America, the cantaloupe is a variety of muskmelon brought over by Christopher Columbus in the 15th century, unintentionally. It is believed the melons were brought on ships as food, and when they ate them in the New World and discarded the seeds, they gained a foothold.
There can be only one use for melons really, and that's eating fresh! Whether as part of a fruit salad or in a dessert on their own, they're simply delicious when ripe. They can be eaten with a spoon, cut into halves, quarters, cubes, wedges or balls.
A quick tip though - always give the skin a wash in warm soapy water before cutting. While you won't eat the skin, any impurities on it could be carried onto the flesh by the knife, and there have been some cases in the United States recently of salmonella contamination of melons this way.
Melons are easy to grow if given the right conditions; they typically grow best under glass, but can be grown outdoors in warmer regions. They need higher temperatures than tomatoes (around 30°C/85°F) and high humidity (which helps discourage red spider mite, a pest), but will grow well with cucumbers which require similar conditions. Contrary to popular belief, you can grow melons alongside cucumbers; they are similar, but will not cross-pollinate each other.
One other growing conditions melons prefer is diffuse light rather than bright light. The soil should be rich and well drained, and like the atmosphere around them, kept continually moist.
Melons are one of the easiest plants to crop well in a large pot, as long as they are kept warm enough, watered well and regularly fed with a liquid feed such as tomato feed.
Seeds should be started around March to April if growing in a greenhouse, and May if growing outside. Put one or two seeds in a 3½ inch pot of compost, and if both germinate, remove the weaker seedling. Pot on as necessary, but don't pot them into oversized pots, and don't let the root balls get too tight. They should be planted out as soon as it is warm enough (a heated greenhouse is best).
Melons can either be left to trail over the ground, or grown upwards as climbers. If growing as climbers, plenty of support is needed for the stems to wind themselves up; melons have tough, long tendrils which will reach a long way to find support. A good way is trailing long strings down from a height, and gently wrapping them around a stem; the stem will then follow the string upwards.
As fruits develop, when they reach the size of a tennis ball they should be supported independently of the stems, to take some of the burden of the weight. A good way to do this is either string net bags or old tights to hold the fruit, suspended from support above.
As for harvesting, its best to go on the colour, which for cantaloupes should be a skin colour of grey-green. Check the melon is a good size and weight for its size, and if you're really lucky, the melon will easily come off the stem, another sign that it's ripe and ready for eating!
- Wikipedia Article on Cantaloupe
- Wikipedia Article on Honeydew
- Worlds Healthiest Food Article on Cantaloupe
- Wikipedia Article on Melons
- Foodreference Article on Melons
- Melon Recipes
Melon varieties are confusing; most people think of melon varieties as Honeydew, Galia, Canteloupe etc, when this is actually the cultivar, and within each cultivar exist different varieties. However, you don’t get this distinction in supermarkets or grocers, so we’ll stick to what most people know.
A netted muskmelon, the Ambrosia melon is very similar to the American Cantaloupe, with a deep orange flesh and very intense flavour and strong scent.
American Cantaloupe Melon
Melons called cantaloupe in the United States are not technically cantaloupes, they are actually a very similar netted member of the muskmelon family, while true cantaloupes are natives of Italy and only found in Europe. The skin of American cantaloupes is beige with a grey netting, protecting a sweet pale orange flesh.
Becoming popular at farmers markets and speciality stores, these melons are small and buttery, and have a pale green skin with two-toned green and orange flesh. Ripe melons have a sweet sugary aroma.
True cantaloupe melons are only found in Europe, and have a beige coloured skin covered in a well defined grey netting, surrounding very sweet pale orange flesh. Ripe cantaloupe melons are very heavy for their size, and very fragrant, with a soft spot where the flower was (the blossom end).
Possibly the most popular variety of melon, honeydews are best in late summer when theyâ€™re at the height of their ripeness, but they are available all year round. They are large, and can vary from round to oval shaped, with a very smooth pale yellow to green skin surrounding yellow to green flesh.
Galia melons have a golden-green coloured rind with a fine netting surrounding pale green-yellow flesh. They are very sweet, with a strong aroma. Riper Galias have a lighter yellow skin and are very fragrant.
Charentais Melons are also called French or French Breakfast melons, and are considered to be the most tasty melons available. The skin is gray to yellow green surrounding a very sweet pale orange flesh. When ripe, Charentais are very scented, and the grey skin changes to a warmer yellow colour.
This is a large melon with a thick-ridged yellow skin, protecting a mild and juicy vanilla orange flesh.
A somewhat small melon, these are increasing in popularity, and are currently sweeping their way across America, although here in the UK we havenâ€™t been as lucky yet to receive them. They are about the size of a cricket ball and usually weigh less than a pound (half a kg). They have very firm flesh, almost like an apple, and the flavour is very sweet; a mixture of pear, apple and honeydew. Unripe melons have a pale cream skin, turning to a mottled yellow when ripe.