Growing up in the Midwest, our one highly anticipated summer treat was watermelon. It was abundant and cheap so we ate tons of it. (I think I ate a couple hundred pounds of it by myself!) Mom always said, “Go ahead, it’s just water,” but there’s much more to it than that!
Watermelon is one of the curcubits, in the same family as squash and cucumbers. While not a true melon, it has adopted this as part of its name. They are known as a pepo – a berry with a thick rind and fleshy center. There are many varieties, about 1,200 world wide. They range from a few pounds to over 90. The variety “Charleston Grey” is one of the largest.
Where did the watermelon come from?
There are several arguments on the origins of watermelon. It’s believed to have started in the wild and was first cultivated around 2 B.C. in the Nile River Valley. From there it spread south, where it was known to be grown in the southern Africa region. There is evidence of it being cultivated by Native Americans in the Mississippi River Valley in the 16th century. Then again, some believe it came over with the Pilgrims to Massachusetts as early as 1629. The settlers brought slaves with them from south Africa, so that may well have been the start of watermelon cultivation here in America. Now the USA is the 5th largest producer.
Nutritional benefits of watermelon
Watermelon is packed with nutrition. True, it is 91% water, and this will help keep you hydrated in the heat of summer. But there’s a lot packed in the other 9%. They are low in sugar, despite being sweet, containing only 6% of the USDA daily requirements for an average adult. They have 17% of the Vitamin A needed for healthy eyes, 20% of the Vitamin C needed for immunity function, Vitamin B6 and more lycopene than any other fruit or vegetable including tomatoes. This is thought to help protect the skin from sun damage. There is also a significant amount of potassium, which regulates high blood pressure, a large amount of carotenoids and amino acids.
Here’s an interesting fact: the amino acid citrulline, one of which is in watermelon, especially in the rind, is a nitrous oxide stimulator. This helps to expand and relax blood vessels – much like the drug Viagra. So will it work in the same way? There’s no telling, but it’s an interesting thought.
Grow your own
They can be planted almost anywhere they get sun. They need to have about 5-6 hours a day and adequate moisture. They have a vining habit that requires room to spread. If the fruit sits on the ground too long it could rot. Place a bed of straw underneath to protect from moisture. They are good for bees too. It takes about one hive to pollinate an acre of watermelon plants.
How to choose a good watermelon
When you’re choosing a watermelon, give it the “thump test.” Gently smack it with your palm. It should sound hollow. Many people knock on them, but this can give you a false hollow sound. A perfectly ripe watermelon should be heavy. A watermelon that is light for its size is probably too ripe. These can be grainy textured with little flavor. Try to choose a watermelon that has a yellowish underside, indicating it was left to ripen on the vine. If it is too white it may have been picked too soon, therefore lacking in flavor.
Beauty care with watermelon
Watermelon for skin care? Why not! Purée up some watermelon flesh and spread it on your face. Leave it for 20 minutes or so before rinsing off with cool water. The Vitamins A and C will smooth and soften your skin. You can apply this sweet smelling mask a few times a week.
Eating your watermelon
Of course, I like my watermelon freshly sliced, a little chilled (but not ice cold) with a dash of salt. This helps bring out the sweetness. When I have too much, I make salsa. And when I really have a lot, I make granitas. Here are a few of my favorite recipes for you to test out:
- 1 ½ teaspoon lime zest
- ¼ cup lime juice
- 3 cups watermelon, cubed and seeded (or use seedless)
- 1 cucumber, peeled and diced
- 1 mango, peeled and diced
- 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and diced
- 1 small red onion, diced
- a handful of fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
- salt and pepper to taste
Combine all the ingredients in a bowl, mixing gently, and chill for an hour or so. Serve with tortilla chips.
- 4 cups watermelon chunks, seeded
- ½ cup organic cane sugar, or use the equivalent of another sweetener such as honey or stevia (find cane sugar here)
- juice of 1 lemon or lime (I prefer lime)
Blend all of the ingredients in a food processor, then purée. Pour into a 9×13 glass cake pan. Freeze for an hour. Scrape up with a fork so it flakes and freeze again. Do this 2 more times. After the third time, scoop out and serve.
Alternatively, you can put a few scoops in a glass, add a bit of light rum and some fresh mint and lime juice for a watermelon mojito!
However you enjoy your watermelon – large or small, red or yellow – just be sure to refrigerate after cutting into it. If you don’t cut it, it can be kept up to two weeks in a cool place. Just about the only thing you can’t do with watermelon is freeze it. the chunks will get mushy. If you need to, make a juice out of it and freeze that. It’s a great beverage by itself. Or freeze the juice in ice cube trays and add these sweet cubes to drinks for an interesting twist.