Melons (C. melo) are one of the oldest crops to be domesticated, originating in Iran and India around 3000 B.C. Melons were highly valued for the protein and calories in the seeds, and the high water content of the flesh. In ancient times it was sometimes easier to transport melons, rather than haul water, on journeys into arid areas. Melons were highly valued and spread throughout the Old World.
Introduced by Spanish invaders in the 1500s, melons spread quickly throughout the Americas. Originally, melons were bitter or bland, but through the centuries melons were gradually selected for sweetness. At a time when sugar was available only to the very wealthy, imagine the treat of eating something like sweet melons.
The diversity among melons is impressive: muskmelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, ogen, casaba, crenshaw and cucumber-melon to name a few. These are all nonscientific terms to describe appearance, color, flavor and culinary qualities. Muskmelon skin may be smooth or have rough netting, but it is always hard. Americans rarely see cantaloupe or honeydew with thin skin, because they don’t ship long distances well.
In the United States, if you want thin-skinned varieties, you probably need to grow them yourself. Europeans generally consider smooth, thin-skinned cantaloupe to be superior in taste and aroma. So, most people outside the United States call muskmelon American melon or American cantaloupe, and thin-skinned melon are called European cantaloupe. Thin-skinned melons come in many colors, and include melons with green flesh that originated in Poland and Israel; white-fleshed melons that are usually from Asia and the Middle East; and finally melons that look and taste like cucumbers that originated around Armenia and Turkey. Yet all are C. melo and will cross pollinate, which results in many melon varieties.
Melons can be frustrating to grow in Yakima County. Melons are not cold-hardy and should not be planted too early. A week of nighttime temperatures below 60 degrees F may kill young plants. We have enough summer heat, but not a long enough growing season, for many varieties. Choose varieties that mature in 90 days or less.
Start with seedlings that are 3-4 weeks old. Melons need very fertile soil with lots of compost, and 1 to 2 inches of water each week. Use a thick layer of mulch to retain moisture and prevent evaporation. To be sure there are enough male and female blooms open at the same time, grow at least 8 to 12 plants. Plant blooming flowers among the melon vines to encourage pollinator insects.
These varieties mature in 75-85 days:
• Ha’Ogen and Model melons are very sweet, with green flesh and a honeydew flavor.
• Charentais is a small French cantaloupe with unrivaled flavor.
• Honey Rock and Hale’s Best are well-known American cantaloupe varieties that are easy to find seeds and seedlings.
• Ineya is a small Russian melon, with white flesh and a mild honeydew flavor.
• Armenian and Metki are like large cucumbers with a mildly sweet flavor.
Seeds are available from the Master Gardener Seed Library or can be found online.