News Release

NC State University

August 21, 2002

Media Contacts:

  • Dr. Todd Wehner, 919/515-5363 or todd_wehner@ncsu.edu
  • Tim Lucas, News Services, 919/515-3470 or tim_lucas@ncsu.edu

Breeding Program Yields Better Watermelons for North Carolina

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Summer wouldn’t be summer without the sweet taste of watermelon. Americans eat about 4.3 billion pounds of the chin-soaking picnic staple each year, according to USDA estimates. That’s nearly 15 pounds per person. North Carolina State University scientists are working to make sure there are plenty of great-tasting, disease-resistant varieties to choose from.

Dr. Todd C. Wehner, professor of horticultural science, heads the NC State watermelon-breeding program, one of only two public watermelon-breeding programs in the United States. Drawing on the gene pool contained in about 15,000 packets and bulk bags of carefully collected and stored watermelon seeds, Wehner and his two graduate students focus on breeding melons that are resistant to gummy stem blight and papaya ringspot, two of the most common causes of crop failure in North Carolina.

They also work with researchers at the North Carolina Specialty Crops Program in Kinston to breed new orange- and yellow-fleshed hybrid watermelons.

This fall, that partnership will yield fruit when the program releases its first generation of hybrids to the market. Although the new hybrids aren’t seedless, they possess all the other traits consumers look for: good flavor, natural sweetness, crisp texture, nice color, and a strong rind to protect them during shipping. Plus, they’re early maturing and higher yielding – traits that farmers look for. Wehner’s lab has one of the world’s most diverse collections of watermelon germplasm, representing more than 1,200 different old cultivars, new cultivars, wild watermelon relatives and gene mutants. Wehner has traveled as far afield as China and Africa to collect seeds, even those that appear to have little commercial value. “Cultivars that aren’t good commercial watermelons may still contain the genes for desirable traits,” he said.

Once it’s collected, the seed is stored at 38 degrees Fahrenheit and 25 percent relative humidity for up to 10 years. Old seeds are regenerated using hand pollinations in the greenhouse or isolation blocks at experiment stations around North Carolina.

North Carolina farmers plant about 12,000 acres of watermelon a year, making it the state’s fourth most valuable horticultural crop, behind sweet potatoes, cucumbers and apples. North Carolina is ranked seventh nationally in watermelon production.

In addition to university support, Wehner’s research is funded by seed companies and grower groups, including the National Watermelon Promotion Board. The North Carolina Specialty Crops Program is a collaboration of NC State and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. For more information about Wehner’s breeding program, go online at http://cuke.hort.ncsu.edu/cucurbit/wmelon/wmelonmain.html.

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