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The Gardens of Colonial Williamsburg

Gardens : Research

Melons and Cucumbers

I. Melons and Cucumbers listed in the Virginia Gazette
II. Melons and cucumbers listed by Virginia Authors
III. Discussion
  A. Cucumbers
    1. Long and Short Prickly
2. White
3. Serpent and Turkey
4. Gherkin
5. Other Heirloom Cucumbers
6. Culture
  B. Melons
    1. Canteloupensis Group
      a. Canteloupe
b. Zatta
c. Diabekr
d. Musk or Netted
e. Roman
    2. Dudaim Group
      a. Pocket
    3. Inordrus Group
  C. Watermelons

I. Melons and Cucumbers listed in the Virginia Gazette:

Oct. 1771, Campbell's Store, Richmond: Best Green Cucumbers
March, 1774, James Wilson, Gardener at the College of William & Mary: Cucumbers of different kinds
Sept. 1775, Miles Taylor Store, Richmond: Green Cucumber, White Cucumber, Early Musk-Melon, Orange Muskmelon, Cantaloupe Melon, Naples Watermelon, Pistoia Watermelon
March, 1792, Minton Collins, Richmond: Long prickly Cucumber, Short prickly Cucumber, Gerkin for pickles, Fine canteloupe Mellon, Fine Italien Mellon
Jan. 1799, Peter Bellet, Williamsburg: Cucumbers, early and late, Fine orange and green streak cantaloupe, Mellons

II. Melons and Cucumbers listed by Virginia Authors

1736-38, Correspondence between John Custis and Peter Collinson: Muscovy Cucumber, Long Cucumber, Muscovy Mellon, Calmuc Mellon, Astrican Water Mellon, Affrican Mellon, Italian Melon, Sir Charles Wagers Melon, Sweet Smelling Mellon
1737, Collinson memo of seeds sent to John Custis: Turkey Cucumber
1737, Wm. Byrd II, Natural History: Fragrant Melon, Guinea Melon, Orange Melon, Green Melon,Watermelon, Cucumbers, three varieties
1770, Mann Page to John Norton Co: Early Prickly Cucumber, Long Green Prickly Cucumber
1771, Robert Carter Nicholas to John Norton CO: Prickly cucumber, Earliest Cucumber, Green and White Turkey Cucumber, Roman Melon, Cantaloupes
1774, Wallace, Davidson and Johnson Order Book: True Cantilupe, Black Galloway Mellon
1784-88, Prentis Monthly Kalender & Garden Book Melon: Cucumber
1793, Melons and Cucumbers listed in A Treatise on Gardening: Cucumis sativus; the common cucumber, Cucumis ructo albo; white cucumber Cucumis oblongus; a cucumber remarkable for its length, Portugal or Pocket Melon, Green fleshed Mellon, Cantaleupe Mellon, Netted wrought Mellon, Zatta Mellon, Diarbekr Mellon
Melons and Cucumbers listed in Jefferson's Garden Book:
1774: Cocomere di Pistoia. Watermelons (Watermelon from Pistoia, Italy), Cocomere de seme Neapolitane (Watermelon seed from Naples), Zatte DI Massa. Canteloupe melons (Cantaloupe melons from Massa.), Popone Arancini DI Pistoia (Muskmelon from Pistoia), Melons: citron, pineapple, green, Venice, water, musk Cucumbers: forward, long green, early green
1805: Winter melon from Malta
1812: Early white cucumber
1816: Persian melon
1818: Frame cucumber
1824: Serpentine Cucumber

III. Discussion

It is interesting that the advertisements in the Virginia Gazette list fewer sources for melons and cucumbers as well as fewer varieties of these plants in local stores than those listed for vegetables such as beans and cabbages. I do not think this is a reflection of their popularity although it may reflect their somewhat elevated status in the hierarchy of kitchen garden plants. It may be that beans, cabbages, turnips, radishes, etc. are staples while melons and cucumbers are considered luxuries. William Hugh Grove, who traveled in Virginia in 1732, remarks on the fondness of the gentry for vegetables such as cauliflower, broccoli, artichoke and cucumber, which may indicate that the cucumber, as well as the melon, is a fruit found more commonly on upper class tables.

Another possible reason for the relatively few varieties listed is that cucumbers and melons may have had a reputation of being difficult to grow. This was certainly true in England. Jane Loudon writes in The Lady's Country Companion (1845), "I would not advise you to grow cucumbers or melons; but, should you feel inclined to try your skill, you have only to have a hotbed�" Hotbeds are not really necessary in Virginia, however, Randolph's instructions in A Treatise on Gardening (1793) for both melons and cucumbers gives extensive information on the making of hotbeds for these crops. It may be that the English wisdom that these fruits are difficult to grow transplants to this country to some degree among the middling sort. On the other hand, both cucumbers and melons seem to be commonly grown in slave gardens and watermelons are wildly popular across all social lines.

Another consideration is the common practice among gardeners of saving seeds of varieties of melons and cucumbers that better suit the American climate or even regional climates within North America rather than purchasing seeds for these fruits from stores. This is particularly true for melons. All garden writers in the 19th century recognize certain varieties of melons better suited for the American climate as well as varieties found primarily in Europe and not commonly grown in this country. This was likely true in the 18th century as well.

A. Cucumbers

The modern cucumber (Cucumis sativus) is probably a descendent of the wild Cucumis harwickii, a native of the foothills of the Himalayas. The culinary cucumber was known in India by at least 2000 BC. The Gherkin (Cucumis anguria) descends from the African Cucumis longipes and was introduced to the West Indies, probably with the Portuguese slave trade, from Angola. It has commonly been called the West Indies Gherkin, due to the mistaken belief, dating to at least the 18th century, that the West Indies was its place of origin. All of the ancient Roman writers on agriculture mention the cucumber. Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 BC) gives the Latin name of Curvimur for the cucumber, referring to the curvature of the fruit. The Greek name for cucumber is sikys, meaning the plant has no aphrodisiac qualities, hence the Greek proverb; "Let a woman weaving a cloak eat a cucumber; because female weavers, if we believe Aristotle, are unchaste, and eager for love making." Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) records the often repeated story of the cucumber being; "a delicacy for which the emperor Tiberius had a remarkable partiality; in fact there was never a day on which he was not supplied with it".

In France the cucumber is listed in the Capitulare de Villis (c. 800) prepared for King Charlemagne. The cucumber was probably first introduced to England during the reign of King Edward III. A list of seeds prepared by Roger, the gardener to the archbishop of Canterbury, includes "concumber & gourde" (1326-27). It is apparently lost during the wars of York and Lancaster and then reintroduced during the reign of King Henry VIII sometime after 1515. The cucumber is listed in William Turner's A New Herball (1551) and Thomas Hill in The Gardener's Labyrinth (1577) is the first to give complete instructions for growing the cucumber and also is the first to introduce the method of raising cucumbers on hotbeds for an early crop as well as growing them in molds to create fanciful shapes and imprints on the fruit. The first varietal description of cucumbers appear in Gerard's Herball (1597) which lists the common cucumber, adder's cucumber, "peare fashioned Cucumber", as well as an unusual cucumber, or possibly a melon he describes as: "There hath bin not long since sent out of Spain some seeds of a rare & beautiful cucumber, into Strausburg a city in Germany�the fruit commeth in place, of a foot in length, greene on the side toward the ground, yellow to the Sun ward, straked with many spots and lines of divers colours. The pulpe or meat is hard and fast like that of our Pompion."

John Parkinson lists six varieties of cucumber in Paridisi in Sol (1629), several of them recognizable well into the 18th century. His cucumbers are: "The long greene Cowcumber, The short Cowcumber; being short, and of an equall bignesse in the body thereof, and of unequall bignesse at both ends; The long Yellow, which is yellowish from the beginning, and more yellow when it is ripe, and hath beene measured to be thirteene inches long; Another kinde is early ripe, called The French Kinde; The Dantsicke kind bareth but small fruit (used for pickles); The Muscovie kinde is the smallest of all other, yet knowne (only bearing 4 or 5 fruits per plant about the size of a small lemon."

By the end of the 17th century the cucumber becomes fairly common in English gardens although there persists some question as to its healthfulness. It is said that the antique name of cowcumber arose because the fruit was thought fit only for cows. This is somewhat curious given the fondness of the Roman emperor Tiberius for the cucumber but a certain suspicion about this fruit lingers right up to the 18th century. An entry in Samuel Pepys Diary on Aug. 22, 1663 reads: "Mr. Newburne is dead of eating cowcumbers, of which, the other day, I heard another, I think Sir Nicholas Crisp's son." John Evelyn writes in Acetaria (1699), "The Cucumber it self, now so universally eaten, being accounted little better than Poyson, even within our Memory." Despite Evelyn's optimism Landon Carter records in his diary on July 24, 1766 his concern for his daughter Judy who is sick; "She does bear ungovernable the whole summer through, eating extravagantly and late at night of cucumbers and all sorts of bilious trash."

The cucumber arrives with the first explorers to North America. Columbus introduced the cucumber to Haiti in 1694. Just 15 years later Desoto records seeing cucumbers in Florida (1509). Cartier observes "very great cucumbers" near Montreal in 1535. Cucumbers were planted at Jamestown in the first years of that settlement as recorded in A True Declaration of the estate of the Colonie in Virginia (1610).

With very few exceptions, all of the cucumbers grown today have been developed within the last 100 years. It appears that all of the 18th century cucumbers with green fruit were of the black spined variety. It is not clear when the white spined varieties, which comprise most of the cucumbers known today, comes into cultivation. The White Spined cucumber is listed by McMahon in American Gardener's Calendar (1806) but I have not been able to find an earlier definitive reference.

1. Long and Short Prickly Cucumbers

These are the most common cucumbers listed in seed inventories both in America and England during the 18th century. They are both black spined, characterized by an uneven surface with many more warts than the modern cucumber. They also tended to be blunter on the two ends rather than the torpedo shape we associate with our modern fruit. I think it is safe to say that the common cucumber listed by Randolph in A Treatise on Gardening (1793) as well as Prentis's cucumber in the Monthly Kalender & Garden Book (1784-1788) would be cucumbers of this type.

These are also the most ancient of cultivated cucumbers. Gerard's illustration of the common cucumber in the Herball (1597) shows a rather short, blunt fruit with many warts, and though not clearly illustrated, it is likely a very spiny fruit by modern standards. John Abercrombie, in Every man his own Gardener (1776), lists six types of cucumbers but comments that the "early short prickly and the long green prickly are commonly cultivated for the general crop." It does not appear that these varieties are as rigid in description and uniformity as what we are accustomed to in modern varieties. Philip Miller, in The Gardeners Dictionary (1754), lists only three general types of cucumbers but comments; "The first of these Kinds is the most common in the English Gardens, of which there are two or three Varieties, differing in the Length or Roughness of the outer Skin of the Fruit: but these being only accidental Sportings of Nature, I shall pass them over without making any Distinction of them." The "Sportings of Nature" referred to by Miller is the result of individual gardeners saving seeds and the many crosses between varieties that arise from this practice. This is recognized by William Cobbett in The English Gardener (1829), who writes: "With regard to sorts, however, people generally save the seed themselves of this plant, or get it from some careful and curious neighbour; and every one sows that which happens to suit his fancy." However, as a general description, Mawe and Abercrombie in the Dictionary of Gardening and Botany (1778) describes the Early Short Prickly as "A short fruit three or four inches long, the rind rather smooth and set with small black prickles." The long prickly seems to average 6 - 10" in length.

The primary distinction between the long and the short varieties, as far as garden use, is the shorter varieties are the earlier bearers. Ferring Burr in Field and Vegetable Gardens of America (1865) lists both the Long Prickly and the Short Prickly cucumber saying that they differ from the London Long Green in that they are "much thicker in proportion to its length; and also in the character of its flesh, which is more pulpy and seedy." Because these are not desirable characteristics to the modern gardener, very few cucumber varieties available today would approximate the 18th century prickly cucumbers. A variety called Everbearing, which is a black spined variety developed about 1888 by J. M. Thornburn & Co. is still available and other black spine varieties are occasionally available from collectors.

2. White Cucumbers

These may be descendants of the Long Yellow cucumber listed by John Parkinson in Paradisi in Sol (1629). Stephen Switzer, in The Practical Kitchen Gardener (1727), initially lists three kinds of cucumber: The long green, long yellow and "fructa minore" (a short cucumber). However in the text on cucumbers he says: "but later years has produced more varieties, viz." and he goes on to list six varieties, three greens, two white and one yellow. The very next year Richard Bradley publishes the Dictionarium botanicum (1728), in which he lists two sorts of white cucumbers but no yellow and although all subsequent 18th century writers, both here and in England list the white cucumber, the yellow cucumber seems to disappear from culture. Philip Miller, in the Gardeners Dictionary (1754), compares the white cucumber to the other varieties as, "by far the better Fruit, as being less watery, and containing fewer Seeds, is the most common Kind cultivated in Holland; for I do not remember to have seen one of our green Sort in any of the Markets in that Country."

The white cucumber may have been more common in the gentry gardens because its culture is somewhat more demanding than the green. Amelia Simmons in American Cookery (1796) alludes to this, "the white is difficult to raise and tender." As there are both long and short varieties of white cucumber listed in period works, most varieties of white cucumbers available today should approximate the type.

3. Serpent and Turkey Cucumber

There is some overlap in the terminology here. The Turkey cucumber has always been a larger fruit than the common cucumber and has evidently been used as a variety name for several different plants. In Leonhart Fuchs's Historia Stirpium (1542), the turkey cucumber (Cucumis turicus), is actually a pumpkin. Bradley in Dictionarium botanicum (1728), describes two sorts which come from Turkey, [white and green] whose Fruit is very large, long and smooth. John Abercrombie in Every man his own Gardener (1776), writes that "the Turkey kinds often grow fifteen or sixteen inches long." Mawe and Abercrombie in the Dictionary of Gardening and Botany (1778) describe the Long Green Turkey cucumber as a "long, smooth, green rinded fruit, without prickles, attaining from ten to fifteen inches in length."

In this country, Gardener and Hepburn, in The American Gardener (1804) and McMahon in American Gardener's Calendar (1806) list both the green and the white Turkey Cucumber. All authors describe this cucumber as having few seeds and being a light bearer. They also may be somewhat less bitter than the prickly sorts. Amelia Simmons in American Cookery (1796) writes, "Cucumbers, are of many kinds; the prickly is best for pickles but generally bitter�chose the bright green, smooth and proper sized." This is likely a Turkey cucumber judging by her description of it being smooth.

By the 19th century Ferring Burr, in Field and Garden Vegetables of America (1865), writes of the Long Green Turkey; "A distinct and well-defined variety; when full grown, sometimes measuring nearly eighteen inches in length." He describes it as a long, slender cucumber, contracted towards the stem in a neck with only a few seeds produced towards the blossom end. This variety is probably the Green and White Turkey Cucumber ordered by Robert Carter Nicholas from John Norton in 1771. I am not aware of a cucumber available today that matches the characteristics of the 18th century Turkey cucumber. Longer varieties such as Longfellow, introduced in 1927, may be as close as we can get.

There is another Turkey cucumber that creates quite a stir among local gardeners in and around Williamsburg in the 18th century and is a distinctly different plant. On Aug. 28, 1737 John Custis of Williamsburg writes to Peter Collinson in London: "the seeds of the long cucumber you sent me; I planted but none came up; I gave my son 3 seeds which all came up; notwithstanding the excessive drouth he had one more than 3 feet long; to the astonishment of many; several people rid many miles to see it�there are more people begd some of the seed; then 10 cucumbers can afford." A memo in Hortus Collinsonianus, p. 60 reads: "I sent seeds of a Turkey cucumber to Mr. Custis in Virginia, in the year 1737; it produced a fruit three feet long and fourteen inches round; grew in one night three inches in length, and people came twenty miles round to visit it." This fruit was a local sensation and is mentioned in the August 12-19 edition of the Virginia Gazette: "There grew, this summer, in the Garden of Mr. Daniel Parke Custis, in New Kent County, a Cucumber, of the Turkey or Morocco Kind, which measured a Yard in Length, and near 14 Inches round the thickest Part of it�They are ribb'd almost like a Musk-melon, colour'd like a Water-melon; and taste much like the common Cucumber. Several curious Persons have been to view them, the like having never been seen in these Parts before." The following year another article appears in the Virginia Gazette (Aug. 25 - Sept. 1, 1738) in response to an article that appears in a Boston newspaper concerning the cucumber article in the Gazette. Mr. Parks begins the article with a quote from the Boston paper and then goes on to insure the veracity of the now famous Virginia cucumber. "Last Week was cut out of a Garden belonging to Capt. Wells of Cambridge�a Water Melon, that was in circumference, both Ways, a Yard and an Eighth Part of a Yard, which weighed 36 Pounds and 10 ounces�This Rarity we send to Virginia, in Return for their Cucumber. If the Author of this Paragraph was ingenuous and candid in his Account, we receive his Present very kindly: But if he intended wittidly to impose upon us an overgrown imaginary Watermelon, for a real Cucumber, supposing our Account to be false�we must beg leave to assure him, that the Description we gave of that Cucumber was true; and that from the Seed of it, and others of the same Kind, abundance of them have been propagated in several Gentlemen's Gardens this Year, particularly in That of Mr. Thomas Nelson, Merchant, in York Town, who has one in his Garden, which measur'd (this Day) 40 inches in Length; and has several others 3 Feet long: He had some this Year which exceeded any of these in Size; but being ripe and wither'd are now considerably shrunk. There are Two Species of them, one Green, the other White; the Green ones are largest, but both of 'em eat well. As we have undeniable Proofs of the Truth of this Account, we venture to send it to the Northward, for Improvement, or Admiration. Mr. Parks"

These mammoth cucumbers generated not only national news, but international news as is evident in a Dec. 15, 1768 edition of the Virginia Gazette."Liverpool, Sept 9 There is now growing in the garden of Peter Holme, Esq.: at Green Bank, near this town, a cucumber produced from a seed brought from Turkey, which measures 25 inches and a half in length, and 28 inches in circumference, and weighs upwards of 30 pounds." This is not the Turkey cucumber described in the English and American gardening works already sited. It is almost certainly a plant know today as the Serpent, Snake or Armenian Cucumber which, in fact, is not a cucumber at all but a melon, Cucumis flexuosus, and was introduced to Italy from Armenia in the 15th century. It is difficult to be certain which plant is referred to as the Turkey cucumber in 18th century literature, although I believe, in most instances it is a true cucumber and not the Serpent Melon. The description in the Gazette of a ribbed fruit, colored like a watermelon and tasting like a cucumber is a very good description of the Serpent melon. None of the other 18th century references mention the prominent ribbing which is very characteristic of this fruit or the extraordinary size.

By the 19th century a clear distinction is made in Ferring Burr's Field and Garden Vegetables of America (1865), which lists both the Turkey Cucumber and the Serpent or Snake Cucumber as different plants. John Randolph, in A Treatise on Gardening (1793), lists a Cucumis oblongus, "which is cultivated only in curious gardens, and are remarkable for their length and fewness of seed." This is a direct quote from Philip Miller's Gardeners Dictionary (1754) description of the long Turkey Cucumber and it is not clear which plant is referred to here. The fewness of seeds leads me to believe it is the true cucumber, common in 18th century garden works because this is a quality that is always cited for the Turkey cucumber. The Serpent Cucumber, when fully ripe, has a hollow center with many seeds as is typical of all melons. In the 1759 edition of The Gardeners Dictionary Miller lists the Turkey Cucumber as Cucumis flexuosus and no longer cites Cucumis oblonga as a species. Flexuosus is the species name, today, of the melon rather than the cucumber so some confusion remains as to the plant referred to by Miller and Randolph. Miller describes the Turkey cucumber, in the 1757 edition, as twice the length of the common cucumber. The Serpent cucumber/melon is far bigger than that when fully mature but even today many gardeners recommend harvesting it at a earlier stage which could be described as twice the length of a common cucumber and at this stage the fruit would have far fewer seeds.

This is also an interesting comparison because it shows conclusively that Randolph had to be working from either the 1752 folio or 1754 abridgment of The Gardeners Dictionary for it is only in these editions that Cucumis oblongus is used. A close reading of Randolph's Treatise leaves me wondering if he ever grew the Cucumis oblongus for he does not mention it again in his instructions for cucumbers and may just be cataloging the plants cited by Miller, which he clearly does with other vegetables. It is quite possible that the serpent cucumber/melon had disappeared from Williamsburg gardens by the 1760s, when the Treatise was likely first written.

Thomas Jefferson, who was a great admirer of the cucumber does not encounter this plant until 1826. In a April 22 letter to George Divers concerning the Serpentine cucumber he has received from Leonard Case he writes: "You perhaps noted in the newspapers some 3. or 4. months ago the mention of cucumbers in a particular garden in Ohio which measured 2 � f. and 3. f. in length. Having a friend in that quarter I wrote and requested him to procure and send me some seed from one of the identical cucumbers. He has sent it, and to multiply the chances of securing it, I send you 9. seeds, assured that nobody will be more likely to succeed than yourself." If this cucumber/melon was still in Williamsburg during the time that Jefferson was here, and given the extraordinary press it received earlier in the century, it is hard to believe he would have overlooked it.

The Serpent Melon, or Armenian Cucumber (Cucumis flexuosus) is still available today, although seemingly only in the white form (it is actually a very pale green) and is still a marvel to visitors who encounter it.

4. Gherkin Cucumber

The gherkin is of African origin and was probably introduced to the West Indies by the Portuguese. As late as 1919 it was listed as a native of the West Indies in Stutevant's Edible Food Plants of the World. It is described by John Ray in his Historia Plantarum in 1688 and John Evelyn in his translation of De La Quintinye's The Complete Gardener (1693). Evelyn describes it as a variety used for pickles, "which last are commonly called Cornichons, or horned Cucumbers, and in English, Crumplings, and Guerkins." Evelyn again lists the "Gerckems" for pickling in Acetaria (1699) but it seems to play a very minor role in the English garden. Minton Collins, who kept a store in Richmond, is credited with first introducing the Gherkin to North America in 1792 (Vegetables of New York vol. I part IV, 1937) so this plant is probably not appropriate to the colonial garden. Bernard McMahon, in American Gardener's Calendar (1806) lists the Gherkin as the "Round Prickly." It is remotely possible that the Gherkin was known in the colonies but not listed under this name. Thomas Jefferson, in a 1813 letter to his brother Randolph Jefferson, recommends to his sister Gardener and Hepburn's The American Gardener as a guide for her to use in the garden and remarks, "she will not find the term Gerkin in the book. It is that by which we distinguish the very small pickling cucumber."

5. Other cucumbers that may be appropriate to Williamsburg gardens

There are several cucumbers found in English literature that are not named in Virginia accounts but may have been here under other names. The Cluster Cucumber or Early Cluster Cucumber is first mentioned by Richard Bradley in Dictionarium botanicum (1728) and is listed by many English authors throughout the 18th century as well as Bernard McMahon in this country in American Gardener's Calendar (1806). It is a black spine cucumber, 5 - 6" long with a blunt, angular fruit produced close to the base of the plant in clusters. It is best known as a very early season cucumber and is possibly the cucumber advertised by Peter Bellet in 1799 as "early cucumber" or the cucumber ordered by Robert Carter Nicholas in 1771 as "Earliest Cucumber." The Cluster cucumber is still available today and may be the oldest of all surviving cucumber varieties.

The Early Frame Cucumber appears late in the 18th or early in the 19th century and is an even earlier producer than the cluster. This cucumber may descend from the short prickly cucumber. McMahon list the Early Frame in 1806 and Jefferson lists it in 1818.

6. Cucumber Culture

Although the culture of these plants is beyond the scope of this work two points are worth making for their presentation in our gardens. Cucumbers are commonly grown on sticks and this is cited by many authors as beneficial to the plant. Richard Bradley in Dictionarium Botanicum (1728) writes, "to have the best Fruit from them, is to let them use the Claspers Nature has given them, and let them run up sticks." Here in Williamsburg John Randolph writes in A Treatise on Gardening (1793), "If Cucumbers are struck as you do pease, they will run to a great height, and will bear till the frosts destroy them."

There is an ancient debate about the wisdom of soaking cucumber seeds before you plant them and what material they should be soaked in. Thomas Hill in The Gardener's Labyrinth (1577) relates the wisdom of Rutilius, who says the seeds should be soaked in sheep's milk, Pliny who soaks them in water and honey, and Columella who soaks them in sugared water. In all cases Hill relates "it will cause the plants, after their perfect growth, to yeeld cowcumbers, both sweet, tender, white, and most pleasant." Stephen Switzer in The Practical Kitchen Gardener (1727) comments on the wisdom of Theophrastus who steeps cucumber seeds in milk, liquid honey or other sweet waters to increase the sweetness of the fruit saying that moderns deny it but everyone agrees that it adds to the quickness of its growth. Thomas Jefferson experiments with soaking cucumber seeds and records in 1774, "Cucumbers the same as No. 6 only that these were steeped in water from Mar. 31 till this day [Apr. 5] when they were sprouted."

B. Melons

The origin of the melon is somewhat obscure, it may be of African descent or it may have originated in Asia Minor. It is also difficult to determine when the melon was first included as a culinary fruit as melon seeds are difficult to differentiate from cucumber seeds in archeological collections. However, melon seeds have been tentatively identified in India from around 2000 BC Musk melons and pickling melons are noted in the Shih Ching written in China sometime between 1000-500 BC Melons were probably known by the Romans by the first century AD Pliny speaks of a new form of cucumber which has lately appeared in Campania called the "melopepo" which is round and the stem separates from the fruit when it is fully ripe. This certainly sounds like a melon.

Part of the confusion is that melons were classed as cucumbers throughout their early history. William Turner, in A New Herball (1551) writes "of cucumbers and suchlike fruit: After Dioscorides time, by handling of the fruits after divers fashions, there rose up melopepones and melons, and anguria, which are all contained under cucumis." Thomas Hill writes in The Gardener's Labyrinth (1577), "The ancient, both of the Greek and Latine writers of Husbandrie, attributed the Pompons and Mellons, to a kinde of Cucumbers which they confessed, very neer to agree with them, in that the Cucumbers, in their growth have been seene, to be changed in to Pompons, and Mellon Pompons." John Gerard writes in the Herball (1596), "for doubtless the Muske-Melon is a Kinde of Cucumber." Parkinson agrees in Paradisi in Sol (1629), "The melon is certainly a kinde of Cowcomber." This confusion lasts well into the 18th century. Bradley writes in New Improvements of Planting and Gardening (1731), "For the more certain producing of Melons of a right Flavor, let me advise that no Cucumber Plants be set near them, lest the Male Dust of the Cucumbers should happen to be carried with the Wind upon the Blossums of the Melons, and perhaps set them for fruit, which will then certainly give the Melons so produced the Flavour of the Cucumber." This advise is sometimes repeated to this very day when, in fact, the cucumber will not cross with the melon. However, the Serpent Cucumber/Melon, will cross with other melons and will impart a cucumber flavor to them. Could this be the origin of this often repeated wisdom?

Melons were first brought to England around the turn of the 16th century. A cookery manuscript attributed to Thomas Fromond contains a list of plants under the title Herbys necessary for a gardyn by letter (c. 1500) that includes "Mylone" in the list of fruits and vegetables. Italian melon seed is ordered for the garden at Hampton Court in 1515 and from here melon culture is spread throughout the gardens of the gentry. In 1612 John Tradescant the Elder presents a bill for "earthen pans for the coveringe of the Mellons" and while he is the gardener to Sir Edward Wolton at St. Augustines's Palace at Canterbury he builds a reputation for the quality of the melons grown there. John Parkinson writes in Paradisi in Sol (1629), "This country hath not had untill of late yeares the skill to nourse them up kindly," and adds, "They have beene formerly only eaten by great personages, because the fruit was not only delicate but rare." As late as 1699 John Evelyn writes in Acetaria of the melon as "Paragon with the noblest Productions of the Garden" and then adds in a note, "That this Fruit was very rarely cultivated in England, so as to bring it to Maturity, till Sir Geo. Gardener came out of Spain. I my self remembering, when and ordinary Melon would have been sold for five or six Schillings."

The melon is introduced to the West Indies by the Spanish and spreads rapidly to North America. Cartier sees muskmelons near present day Montreal in 1535. William Wood, in New England's Prospect (1633) sees "Muskmillins" grown by the native people. In Virginia the local Indian tribes not only grew melons but had apparently developed indigenous varieties of the melon for John Bannister writes in 1679 (in the mistaken belief that melons are native to the New World), "Musk and Water Melons which are a large very pleasant & innocent fruit, I have eaten near half a score of them in an afternoon. Most of these I suppose grow naturally somewhere or other in the Continent for the Natives had them before this was a Colony & we from them."

By the 18th century the melon is not only a prized fruit at a gentlemen's table, but is a lucrative commodity of exchange by slave gardeners. Landon Carter laments that he can scarcely keep a melon on his plantation for the thievery. Melons are given as gifts to Governor Botetourt by the likes of Randolph and Prentis. Records kept by Anne Cary Randolph at Monticello between 1805-1808 listing items purchased from slaves include "musc melons" and "water melons" (and a great number of cucumbers). The cultivation of melons for use and trade seems to cross all socio-economic levels. Varieties of melons are even more transient and mutable than cucumbers. In Dodsley's work, Adams Luxury and Eve's Cookery (1744) it is observed, "To enumerate all the different Sorts of this Fruit, would not only be endless, but impossible." Of the recognized melon groups in modern terminology, the Cantelupensis group, which includes the muskmelon, netted skin or rough skin cantaloupe and Persian melon is the best represented of 18th century varieties. The Dudaim group is represented by the pocket melon and has long been in cultivation in Europe as well as America. The Inodorus group, which includes the Winter, Honey dew, Crenshaw and Casaba melons are known in Europe since at least the 17th century and may have been present in the colonies, at least late in the 18th or early in the 19th century.

1. Cantelupensis group

a. Cantaloupe

The true cantaloupe is named after Cantelupa, a papal estate outside of Rome where this melon was first introduced from Armenia in the 15th century. It is first mentioned in Leonhart Fuchs's Historia Stirpium (1542) as Cucumis Pepo. It is pictured as a round to oblong ribbed fruit with many warts or scales on the skin. Gerard in the Herball (1597) calls this melon "Muske Melon," writing that "the barke or rind is of an overworne russet greene colour, ribbed and furrowed very deepely, having often chappes or chinkes, and a confused roughnesse: the pulpe or inner substance which is to be eaten, is of a faint yellow colour." This melon, or its ancestors, stays in cultivation for a very long time and is considered among the best of all melons. Philip Miller, in The Gardeners Dictionary (1768) writes of the "Cantaleupe, which is so called from a place about fourteen miles from Rome, as the best of the melons and describes it as a round melon with a very rough and warty rind and an orange flesh."

Because the name out lives the original variety it is not clear if this is the cantaloupe described in this country in garden books and seed lists. Bernard McMahon writes in the American Gardener's Calendar (1806), "The true Cantaleupe or Armenian warted Melon, is very scarce in the United States." He describes the cantaloupe as "large, roundish and deeply ribbed, a little compressed at both ends, the surface full of warted protuberances�the flesh reddish, firm�of which there are several varieties, differing principally in colour, and commonly called black rock, golden rock, &c.;" It is around the turn of the century that cantaloupes commonly come to be called rock melons, due to their thick, hard rind and this probably serves to differentiate them from what we would call, today, the muskmelon.

b. Zatta Melon

Zatte is the Italian word for a type of canteloupe. Jefferson lists the Zatte DI Massa, which translates as Canteloupe from Massa. (Italy) in 1774. Miller, in The Gardener's Dictionary (1754) describes the Zatta melon as a "small Fruit, rather flat than round; the two Ends being compressed: the Skin is rough, generally warted, and deeply furrowed; the Flesh of a red Colour; but seldom very thick." He also observes that while there is little flesh it is generally good. By the time Miller publishes the 8th edition of The Gardeners Dictionary (1768) he remarks, "there is so little flesh in one of these fruit, that they are scarce worthy the trouble of propagating." Zatta disappears as a varietal name in the 19th century but Ferring Burr, Field and Garden Vegetables of America (1865) and Robinson, in the translation of Vilmorin's The Vegetable Garden (1885) both list a variety called Early Cantaloupe. It is described as an older variety, slightly flattened at the ends, ribbed with a yellowish skin, spotted with green. The rind is thick and sometimes warted but very variable in size and color. The fruit are 4 - 5" in diameter and the flesh is a reddish-orange. If this is not the Zatta melon it is certainly a very similar fruit. There does not appear to be a comparable melon to this variety today.

c. Diarbekr Melon

This variety is listed only by Randolph in A Treatise on Gardening (1793) and Gardener and Hepburn in The American Gardener (1804). Both references agree it is among the best of all melon varieties. Randolph writes; "There is a rough notty Melon called the Diarbekr, from a province belonging to the Turkish empire in Asia, which is reckoned the most exquisite of all Melons, which have been brought to great perfection here, and which are not taken notice of by Miller, probably because it has been brought into England since the publication of his dictionary unless it is the Zatta Mellon." This is an interesting statement in that Randolph clearly is not growing both the Zatta melon and the Diarbekr and again illustrates that a number of the plants listed in A Treatise on Gardening are not necessarily being grown by Randolph but are simply a catalog of plants listed by Miller. His statement that the Diarbekr melon may be Miller's Zatte Melon implies that it is a small melon, the rough and knotty appearance agrees with the description of the Zatte melon which would make it a Cantaloupe or Rock Melon type.

Heirloom cantaloupes that are still available and may be used to illustrate the type include:

Charenties melons are offered by several sources in several different forms. The light skinned, faintly ribbed variety fits, to some degree, the description of the Spanish Melon, in John Hill's Eden or, a compleat body of Gardening (1757) which he describes as "white on the Outside, and but lightly wrinkled, and the Flesh is red." The Charentais flesh tends towards orange.

The White Prescott is also a very light skinned melon although with more pronounced ribbing and the flesh has a somewhat redder color than the Charentais. White or gray melons are also listed by: Evelyn (De La Quintinye), The Complete Gardener (1693), Abercrombie, Every man his own Gardener (1776), Loudon, Encyclopedia of Gardening (1822), Cobbett, The English Gardener (1829) lists a Silver Rock and Ferring Burr in Field and Garden Vegetables of America (1865) lists the Prescott Cantaloupe as one of the rock cantaloupes.

Black Rock is still available and is listed by Bernard McMahon in the American Gardener's Calendar (1806).

De'Algiers is an heirloom French cantaloupe said to date to the 18th century. This is possibly McMahon's Large African which is synonymous to Vilmorin's Algerian, as listed in The Vegetable Garden (1885) and cited by Weaver, Heirloom Vegetable Gardening (1997). It is interesting to speculate if this could also be the Affrican Mellon sent to Custis by Collinson in 1736 or the Guinea Melon listed by Byrd in his Natural History (1737).

d. Muskmelon or Netted Melon

Today, muskmelon and cantaloupe are used interchangeably to describe any member of the Cantalupensis group, typified by a very aromatic, usually orange or yellow flesh. This confusion dates to a very early period. Gerard's description of the "Muske Melon" in the Herball (1597) appears to be of the true cantaloupe or rock melon type. In Bailey's Hortus (1858) he writes of the muskmelon, "now widely cultivated in many forms in North America, mostly under the erroneous name cantaloupe which is properly applied to a race with hard and scaly or warty rinds and seldom grown with us." It is difficult to separate these two types of melons in 18th century references. It is not clear when the first thin rind or netted melons appear. The melons illustrated in Parkinson's Paradisi in Sole (1629) and Gerard's Herball (1597) do not appear to be netted. The first clear reference to what appears to be a muskmelon that I can find comes in John Evelyn's translation of La Quintinye's The Complete Gardener (1693) in which he describes the best variety of melon as "not large, but of middling Size, the Rind thin, faintly Embroider'd, and without being Ribb'd or divided along the Sides." Randolph's "Netted wrought melon" listed in A Treatise on Gardening (1793), is clearly a reference to the netted muskmelon.

Both orange and green-fleshed varieties of melons are listed by many sources in 18th century literature. It appears that the green-fleshed varieties tend to be of the earlier sort and may be smoother than the later, orange-flesh varieties. Stephen Switzer remarks on this in The Practical Kitchen Gardener (1727) in his description of early melons, "the early green little melon, and the Anjou or Icay melon being the chiefest of this class." He also writes that the later melons are larger and more ribbed. John Hill in Eden or, A compeat body of Gardening (1757) describes the small green melon as, "the Rind of this is smooth, and the Flesh is green." This would lead me to believe that the "Green Fleshed Melon" described by Randolph in A Treatise on Gardening (1793) would likely be a smooth melon. Another green-fleshed melon that is said to date to the 18th century is the Ann Arundel which was cultivated by a Dr. Hill in the 1730's in Londontown, Maryland. (Weaver, Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, 1997). This melon is not ribbed and has only a faint netting. Peter Bellet's 1799 advertisement in the Virginia Gazette of fine orange and green streak cantaloupe probably refers to muskmelons rather than the true cantaloupe as green-fleshed forms of the cantaloupe are quite uncommon. The netting on the Ann Arundel could very well be described as a streaking rather than a netting and this attribute sounds very much like Evelyn's "faintly Embroider'd melon." Bernard McMahon lists a "Netted Green Flesh" melon in 1806. Regardless of netting, it is likely that all references to green-fleshed melons in the 18th century are muskmelons.

The green-fleshed melon comes to dominate the American market in the next century. William Cobbett writes in The English Gardener (1829), "There is only one fine musk melon that I ever saw in America; which is called the citron melon, having the flesh nearly white and being of the shape of a lemon." This is not the citron we know today which is used more for pickling or fruitcake than for eating fresh. Burr, in Field and Garden Vegetables of America (1865) describes the Citron melon as a small fruit, 6"x 5�", deeply and regularly ribbed with a thickly netted green skin. The Citron melon may have been brought to France from Africa in 1777 (Vegetables of New York, Part I, Vol. IV, 1937) and is probably the progenitor of the Pineapple melon. Jefferson lists both the Pineapple and Citron melon in 1794. A slightly larger melon with similar characteristics is called the Nutmeg melon, listed by Gardener and Hepburn in The American Gardener (1804) and Bernard McMahon in American Gardener's Calendar (1806). Peter Henderson writes in Gardening for Profit (1867) that the Citron melon is the primary market melon while the Nutmeg melon is grown more in private gardens.

All of these are green-fleshed melons with distinct netting although there is a great deal of variation within the type. Skillmans netted melon is one of the first named varieties developed in this country (1834), probably derived from the Citron melon. The Jenny Lind melon, another green-fleshed melon is developed soon after. Dr. Richard Harris writes, "The Center melon known on the markets of Philadelphia previous to 1840 was supposedly the progenitor of the Jenny Lind named about 1846." Center melon may be a corruption of Citron melon or this may be an entirely different melon derived from an Armenian melon (Vegetables of New York vol. I, part IV, 1937). For our use the Ann Arundel is probably the best of the green-fleshed melons although the ribbed and netted varieties of green-fleshed melons are likely known by late in the 18th century. Many of the netted green flesh melons are still available although probably not in their original forms. This was true even by the middle of the 19th century when Ferring Burr writes Field and Garden Vegetables of America (1865), "The Nutmeg Melon has been long in cultivation �though seldom [found] in a perfectly unmixed state."

There are very few descriptions of the orange-fleshed muskmelon. The modern orange muskmelons were all developed after the middle of the 19th century. It is possible that lists of melons that include muskmelons along with green-fleshed melons infer that the term muskmelon used alone refers to thin skinned melons with yellow, orange or red flesh. While there were certainly many orange-fleshed melons in cultivation during the 18th century their particular attributes are nearly impossible to discern. For our purposes, heirloom varieties such as the Amish melon, an orange fleshed variety with a green rind and very faint ribbing and netting or the Kansas melon, an orange fleshed melon with distinctive ribbing and moderate netting will probably illustrate the range of orange muskmelons known during the period.

e. Roman Melon

The Roman melon was ordered by Robert Carter Nicholas in 1771. There are quite a number of references to the Romana melon in English gardening works and seed lists. Flanagan & Nutting's, A Catalogue of Seeds (1834) lists a "Netted Romana." Cobbett, in the English Gardener (1829) lists it as the "Early Romana," Loudon, Encyclopedia of Gardening (1822) lists the "early Romana" as well as a "large netted Romana," both with an oval fruit and Miller in the Gardeners Dictionary (1768) describes the "Romana" as an early variety. In this country the Romana melon is listed in Gardener and Hepburn's The American Gardener (1804) and Bernard McMahon describes it in American Gardener's Calendar (1806) as "a great bearer, comes early, but the fruit much smaller though well flavored." It is likely that this was an orange or yellow-fleshed variety of melon as Romana is included in many lists that also list green melons as different varieties. By the middle of the 19th century the Romana melon disappears as a variety. It may be similar to the Orange Cantaloupe listed by Ferring Burr in Field and Garden Vegetables of America (1865). This is described as a netted melon, particularly near the stem, and as "An oval variety, about six inches in length by five inches in diameter�Very early and productive."

2. Dudaim Group

a. Pocket Melon

This is a very small melon also known as the Portugal, Queen Anne's, King Charles, Dormers, and today, Pomegranite and Plum Grannie. It is grown solely for its fragrance today but apparently also had culinary uses in the 18th century. William Byrd II lists a fragrant melon in the Natural History (1737), which may be a melon of this type. John Custis, in a 1737 letter to Peter Collinson writes of a melon that is probably of this type, "the melon which you are desirous of some seeds from its pretty color and scent, has bin very plenty in this country my negros used to make multitudes of them but finding them unfit to eat; and by most thought a disagreeable smell; left of planting them; and tho I have make a general enquiry to get some of the seeds, can not hear of any." Collinson replies in February, 1738, "I am confounded with shame att what you Mention about sending so farr for the sweet smelling Mellon. It gives Mee great uneasiness that you should take so much pains & trouble about a thing of no Real Value but Curiosity it will make Mee Cautious what I ask for the Future."

John Randolph, in A Treatise on Gardening (1793) list the "Portugal or Pocket Melon," writing that it also has been called by the name of "King Charles's Melon, because he used to carry one in his pocket, and also Dormers Melon, because brought from Portugal by a general of that name." This, again, is a quote from Millers Gardeners Dictionary (1754) and the King Charles they refer to is certainly Charles II who died in 1685 so this would date the cultivation of this melon to at least the 17th century. Miller writes in The Gardeners Dictionary (1754) that it has been through neglect that "not one in an hundred of them are fit to eat," hinting that this melon had some culinary use. Another small melon from Portugal, listed in the 1757 edition of The Gardeners Dictionary, is the Black Galloway. The Black Galloway is listed in this country in the Wallace, Davidson and Johnson Order Book (1774) and this is probably the same melon listed as the Black Portugal by McMahon in 1806. Miller seems to class this melon with the Pocket Melon, though much better tasting. Amelia Simmons writes in American Cookery (1796) of a melon that is "short, round, fair skinn'd, is best for Mangoes" (pickles). This is possibly a melon from this group, although mangoes today are made from melons in the Chito group. These are Asian melons and there is no evidence that they had arrived in this country at such an early date. I have grown the Pocket Melon from three different sources and all seem to be the same. To my taste they are inedible although I occasionally meet people who say they can be made into mangoes (pickles).

3. Inordrus Group

These are the melons known today as the Honeydew, Crenshaw and Casaba melons. They were the Winter melons of the 18th century, because they store well, even improving in flavor during storage, and can be used well into the winter months. There is no direct reference to a Winter melon in Williamsburg in the 18th century. Custis receives a Calmuc Mellon with fruit 2 feet long from Peter Collinson in 1736. The Winter melons are typically oval and quite large so this could be a possible reference. Jefferson lists a Winter melon in 1805. They are certainly known in England. Gerard, in the Herball (1597), lists a "Spanish Melon" writing, "The fruite groweth neere unto the stalke, like unto the common Pompion, very long, not crested or furrowed at all, but spotted with very many such marks as are on the backside of the Harts-tongue leafe. The pulpe or meate is not so pleasing in taste as the other." This description and the accompanying illustration looks very much like a Winter melon or what is still called a Spanish Melon in some catalogs. Braddley, in New Improvements of Planting and Gardening (1731), writes that "the Italians have a Melon which is commonly ripe about Christmas" that may describe a Winter melon. Miller lists a Winter melon in The Gardeners Dictionary (1754).

The Valencia Winter Melon has been know in this country since at least 1830 and is still available. However, because of questionable documentation in Williamsburg their use should be limited.

C. Watermelon

The ancestor of the modern watermelon (Citrullus lanatus) is a native of the Kalahari desert in southwest Africa. Watermelon seed was found in the tomb of Tutankhaman (1370-1352 BC) and it was during their exile in Egypt that the Hebrews were introduced to the fruit. Leonhart Fuchs lists a watermelon as citrullus in the Historia Stirpium (1542). This was possibly the citron melon (C. lanatus, var. citroides), a smaller, harder fruit used primarily in preserves. Gerard's "Citrull Cucumber" listed in the Herball (1597) certainly appears to be a citron. It is not clear when watermelons were first introduced to England. John Evelyn writes in Acetaria (1699), "There is also a Winter-Melon, large with black Seeds, exceedingly Cooling, brought us from abroad, where they drink Water after eating Melons." Stephen Switzer records in The Practical Kitchen Gardener (1727), "there is also a winter or rather watermelon, with large black seeds, some of which I have this year reciev'd from France." Although known in England, the watermelon has always been a very minor fruit for the English who do not have a climate suited for their growth. Philip Miller in The Gardeners Dictionary (1754) lists eight varieties of watermelons but writes that they "are cultivated in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and most other warm Countries in Europe; as also in Africa, Asia and America; and are by the Inhabitants of those Countries greatly esteemed for their wholsome cooling Quality; but in England they are not so universally esteemed, though some few Persons are very fond of them."

The watermelon was brought to the Americas by the early Spanish and Portuguese explorers and were quickly adopted by the native people. John Smith does not mention the watermelon as being in Virginia in his writing but they are found by Hilton in Florida before 1664 and Father Marquette finds them along the Mississippi River in 1673 writing that they "are excellent, especially those with red seeds." In Virginia, the Reverend John Bannister describes Watermelons in his Natural History (1688) as "having the rind of a lively green colour, the meat of a pale Carnation, & the seed black." In 1736 Peter Collinson sends John Custis Watermelon seed "from Astacan which Lies near the Mouth of the Wolga on the Caspian sea, saying that they are much famed." Custis writes back in 1737 that "Some of your watermellons seeds came up but I can see little difference between them and our[s]." Randolph does not include watermelons in A Treatise on Gardening (1793) nor does Prentis list them in the Monthly Kalender & Garden Book (1784-1788) but they are clearly a prized fruit with the colonists. In The Journal of Lieut. William Feltman (1781-82), a soldier of the First Pennsylvania Regiment, he observes in Hanover Co. Virginia on August 17, 1781, "This evening I had an invitation from Capt. Pierson to assist him in eating two water-melons, which were the best and finest I ever see. This country is full of them; they have large patches of two and three acres of them." They also seem to be grown by all classes of people. Fithian records in his diary about receiving watermelons from the slave Daddy Gumby in 1774 and the indentured servant, John Harrower records in his diary (1775) that he plants watermelons in "My Plantation for my Amusement." At the plantation of Col Frances Taylor watermelons afford a social event in 1787, "Aug. 25, J. Taylor came after and had some Watermelons; Aug. 27, C.T. family�came with us to eat Watermelon; Aug. 28, Hubd Taylor called to eat Watermelon."

Several varieties of watermelon are known in Virginia with both red and yellow flesh. Bannister records in the Natural History (1688) "red, yellow and white meated varieties of Watermelon." Bernard McMahon in American Gardener's Calendar (1806) lists: "Long Red-flesh, Long Yellow-flesh, Large Round Red-flesh and Green-flesh" (probably a citron). It is likely that the red-fleshed varieties were the most prized. Amelia Simmons, in American Cookery (1796) writes that "the red cored are highest flavored." Basilius Besler illustrates a watermelon in the Florilegium (1613) that has the distinctive striping that seems to typify the older varieties of watermelons. The Carolina Watermelon is one of the oldest named varieties in this country. McMahon lists it in his 1802 catalog and it also is distinctly striped. Another old watermelon is a variety called Rattlesnake, developed in Georgia, probably in the 1830's. It is similar in appearance to the Carolina and probably the best for our use.

 


 
 
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