Watermelon Introduction

Watermelon Crop Information

Introduction

  • by Todd C. Wehner
  • Department of Horticultural Science
  • North Carolina State University
  • Raleigh, NC 27695-7609

Watermelon is Citrullus lanatus (Thunb.) Matsum. & Nakai, formerly C. vulgaris. Commercial cultivars are classified as C. lanatus var. lanatus, and wild accessions are C. lanatus var. citroides. It has been cultivated for thousands of years, as indicated by the fact that it has a name in Sanskrit. Watermelon is grown throughout the world as a staple food (edible seeds), a dessert food (edible flesh), and for animal feed. Although it is primarily eaten fresh, it is also eaten as a cooked vegetable in Africa. In Russia, watermelon is a staple food, eaten pickled and used for production of syrup by boiling the sugary flesh. In China, firm-fleshed cultivars are cut into strips and dried for use as pickles or glace’ candy.

Watermelon has been cultivated in Africa and the Middle East for thousands of years (at least 4000 in Egypt). It has been cultivated in China since at least 900 AD. Watermelon was brought to the New World in the 1500s. In the U.S., watermelon is a major vegetable crop that is grown primarily in the southern states. The total area under production in the U.S. in 1998 was 75,629 ha, with a total production of 36,731 Mg and a value of $284 million. The U.S. average yield in 1998 was 0.487 Mg/ha, with a range from 0.92 Mg/ha (California) to 0.14 Mg/ha (Mississippi). The major watermelon producing states in the U.S. are Florida, California, Texas, Georgia, and Arizona (USDA Agricultural Statistics).

Watermelon has been improved by domestication and formal plant breeding from a late maturing vine with small fruit having hard, white flesh and bland or bitter taste, into an early maturing, more compact plant with large fruit having edible, sweet flesh. In the last century, plant breeders working in public or private programs in the United States and around the world have released varieties having disease resistance, dwarf vines, larger fruit, higher sugar content, higher lycopene content, seedlessness, and new flesh colors, such as dark red, orange, and yellow. Recent advances in the breeding of seedless triploid hybrids have resulted in renewed popularity of watermelons, and per capita consumption has increased 37% since 1980.