The Wonders of Watermelons

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There is nothing like biting into a juicy, sweet slice of cold watermelon during our hot and humid summertime! And with variety names like “Jamoree,” “Crackerjack,” and “Sweet Gem,” it’s hard not to smile and associate this iconic melon with summer fun. Today we are slicing into the wonderful world of watermelons! We’ll learn how to grow them and the benefits of eating them for our health, tips on how to pick out a ripe melon at the farmers’ market or grocery store, and more! After reading this article, you will be ready to dazzle your friends and family with watermelon “fun facts” at your next summer get-together!

Growing watermelons in North Carolina

Watermelons are vining plants originally from Africa and belong to the same plant family  as cucumbers, cantaloupe, pumpkins and other squash (Cucurbitaceae). Watermelon fruits come in a range of sizes, from micro (less than 3 pounds) to giant varieties, being over 30 pounds! The melon or fruit is actually a modified berry, called a pepo. The watermelon fruit takes a long time to grow (70-90 days, depending on the variety), so it is best to plant watermelon (as a seed or transplant) in a sunny spot after the risk of frost has passed and the ground has warmed up. Expect fruits to be ready to harvest during the summer (late June-August). The inside of the fruit can be red, pink, or yellow, and there are varieties with and without seeds.

Watermelons can also be grown across the state, from the mountains to the coast! North Carolina is in fact one of the top producing states for watermelon, with our farms producing 8% of the U.S. annual watermelon harvest.

Tips for picking a ripe watermelon

If you do a quick internet search, you will find various interesting methods for determining a watermelon’s ripeness. After checking different credible sources, I found several recommended methods that should work, just shy of slicing into one!

  • Look for a “yellow belly” or field spot – watermelons have a pale spot where the fruit rested on the ground while it grew. For riper melons, this spot will be larger and a deeper, creamier butter-yellow, while less ripe melons will have a smaller, paler yellow or whitish spot.

  • Watch for a dull or matte shine for the rind – riper watermelons tend to be less shiny on the outside and heavier than less ripe melons.

Another tip you might have heard is tapping or “thumping” a watermelon, using the sound to tell if it is ripe. However, this method is not very reliable, as there are many different shapes and sizes of watermelon, so it can be difficult to consistently gauge ripeness based on its sound.

Health benefits and how to store watermelon

As the name suggests, watermelons are mostly water (92%). This makes watermelon a great food to keep you hydrated during the summer. Melons are also great sources of vitamins A and C, which help our skin and eye health as well as to fight infections and heal wounds. They also contain lycopene, which helps improve cholesterol and blood pressure levels. Melons are also a great snack if you are watching your weight, with a one-cup serving of cubed melon estimated to be 45-60 calories.

After bringing your watermelon home from the market, it is best to leave it outside of the refrigerator until you are ready to eat it, as the fruit does not tolerate cold well. Only refrigerate your watermelon a couple hours before slicing (to chill it and make it extra sweet) and after slicing, as the fruit will then be exposed to potential food pathogens without the protection of its rind. It is also important to wash the outside of the melon before slicing, as your knife can bring those pathogens into the fruit! Rinse the melon under cool water and follow up with a brush to ensure the rind is clean before slicing. Also save that rind, it is also edible after cooking!

Don’t forget that watermelons are in season now and can be found at most nearby farmers’ markets, including the Sanford Farmers’ Market in downtown Sanford on Saturday mornings. Make sure to stop by and grab a melon at the market to enjoy this summer!

For more information on watermelons, how to grow or find them near you, as well as the Sanford Farmers’ Market, contact North Carolina Cooperative Extension at the Lee County Center and ask for Meredith Favre, our Local Foods Coordinator, for more information.