Master plantsman Hayes Jackson is an expert on watermelons. During a recent watermelon tasting at the Longleaf Botanical Gardens in Anniston, Jackson talked about how to pick a ripe watermelon, and how do they make a seedless watermelon, anyway?
Q: Where did watermelons come from?
A: I always find it interesting that wild watermelons came from South Africa. They grew in the Kalahari Desert and were mostly pit and a whole lot of rind. Over time, we’ve seen them collected for more flesh and sweeter flesh. They go back 5,000 years to Egypt, and we know that because there are watermelon hieroglyphics.
Q: What are some of the different types of watermelon?
A: There are probably close to 1,200 varieties of watermelon being grown. There are about 200-300 that are more popular as commercial varieties. Back when I was growing up, you had jubilee, you had Dixie melon, rattlesnake melon, a whole bunch of old timey names. The rind can be green, cream-colored, brown, striped, spotted or kind of a greyish color. So you get different types and different sizes. When I was in China, they had really small watermelons that are called icebox melons because they are good for a personal size.
Q: How do you get a seedless watermelon?
A: They do a cross. They treat one variety with colchicine, which messes up the DNA a little bit. When you cross both of them, you have a polyploid cross, which results in the seeds not developing. You do still have seed remnants in there. You have to plant two varieties.
Q: How do you choose the perfect watermelon?
A: I always tell people if you want a good, ripe watermelon, I always like to look at the watermelon itself and look at all sides. I always tell people to look for the butter spot. It’s that yellow spot, and it will start to turn a nice butter yellow or golden yellow when it’s ripe. If that butter spot is still green or kind of pale, that watermelon might not be at the proper ripeness. I also like to do a little tap, and it should have a little hollow ring to it. The other thing you want to do is look at that stem and make sure it’s a little dry. If that stem is really, really green, there’s a chance that watermelon might not be ripe enough.
Q: If I pick a watermelon that isn’t ripe enough, can I just wait for it to ripen?
A: If you pick a watermelon and it’s not ripe, it will not continue to ripen. Once you remove it from that vine, it will continue to be unripe if it’s unripe.
Q: How do you know if a watermelon is no good?
A: You should always look for soft spots. That happens because they get bruised in transportation. A lot of times they are built to move instead of built for taste. You can also touch them, and if it’s soft and the skin gives, it may be overripe. When you cut them, they will be a little brown inside and they’ll be a little sour.
Q: What is a yellow watermelon and how is it different from other types of watermelon?
A: My favorite is a yellow meat watermelon. To me, they always taste sweeter, and I’ve got a bad sweet tooth. They actually don’t have lycopene, which gives tomatoes the red and also gives the watermelons the red. So they do lack the lycopene, which makes them taste a little sweeter. So if you like a sweet watermelon, a yellow will always be a little bit sweeter.
Q: What are some of the different ways people eat watermelon?
A: Some people make a watermelon salad, where they pair it with feta cheese. Others put salt on their watermelon. I’m a no-salt person. But in the Middle East and some of those Northern African countries, instead of salt they use feta cheese, and they combine that flavor and it’s actually pretty good. I’ve had watermelon salad with feta cheese and onions and tomatoes. It’s really good. So, it’s not always a dessert melon. In China, they cut them up into cubes and use it for a stew.