Plate 607 Cucumis mello

Cucurbita aspera

Tahiti [Otaheite], Friendly [Society] Islands

13 April – 1 June & 4 June – 13 July 1769

The gourd family, Cucurbitaceae, consists of about 975 species across 98 genera. Members of the family are annual or perennial herbaceous plants; many are climbing or trailing vines with characteristic tendrils. The yellow or white flowers are often showy and unisex and produce large fruits known as pepos.

Muskmelon, the original wild melon (Cucumis mello), is polymorphic (having more than one adult form) making the exact resolution of origins and variants extremely difficult. Muskmelon is thought to have originated in Africa and was probably transported into the Middle East and then Asia by successive migrations of early humans. 

It is now thought that there may well have been two sources of origin, Africa and Asia. The annual vine Cucumis mello var. agrestis is a climbing or prostrate much branched herb with 3-5 lobed leaves, 9-12 mm across yellow flowers and oval to ellipsoid fruits, light green with dark green patches and is found in Africa, India, China and South West Asia. 

Because of its significant nutritional and medicinal properties, Cucumis mello var. agrestis was most likely brought to Tahiti by immigrants from its source in South East Asia. Cultivars of Cucumis mello var. agrestis are still gathered in many African regions for its edible kernels, used as a soup thickener and vegetable, but is considered to be a wild, weedy version. Although Cucumis mello var. agrestis has male and female flowers and is self-fertile, it requires insects to complete pollination.

Cucumis mello is known as the Muskmelon because all types have a slightly musky scent when cut. All Cucumis mello will readily cross-pollinate, hence the present huge variety of commercially successful ‘offspring’ cultivated throughout the world. The sweet melon found today is probably a result of domestication and cultivation as hybridization of melon occurs frequently in nature. 

The cultivated species of Cucumis mello includes cucumbers, melons, pumpkins and marrows, and widely distributed throughout tropical, subtropical and temperate regions of both the New and Old World. Melons can be grown at elevations up to 1,000 metres. They grow best in areas where annual daytime temperatures are within the range 18 - 30°c, but can tolerate 9 - 35°c.  

The Cucumis mello species comprises feral, wild and cultivated varieties. Cultivated species include ‘dessert’ melons and non sweet forms that are consumed raw, pickled or cooked. The most ancient records on cultivated Cucumis mello appear extensively in ancient Chinese writings from about 2000 B.C. and also in Egyptian mural paintings. Cucumis mello var. agrestis still grows widely in suitable habitats but is mostly treated as a weed.

I found it quite difficult to settle on a plant to investigate and, to be honest, Cucumis mello var. agrestis is a weedy, fairly insignificant looking climbing or prostrate growing plant. However, I have grown cucumber plants successfully in my greenhouse and another member of the Cucurbita or gourd family, the Courgette or Zucchini. Both of course can only grow successfully when daytime and particularly night-time temperatures reach and maintain a suitable minimum temperature of 16 °C.  Hence I was looking for an edible gourd type plant. Even better when the huge family included many types of succulent widely cultivated sweet melon!

With origins in South and East Africa and India, present varieties of melon are supposedly from the Caucasus or Armenia. Melon or similar fruits were eaten in Ancient Egypt, in Ancient Greece and by the Romans. Sketches of melons drawn in antiquity and the Middle Ages are usually oblong shaped, quite different from any grown today. 

Consequently, researchers’ difficulties over identification are made even more difficult by confusions of designation between cucumber, melon, watermelon and gourd in ancient texts. Italian monks cultivated and improved melon during the Renaissance, in a papal summer residence in Cantalupo.  The ‘Cantaloupe melon’ was then introduced to Avignon, where the Cavaillon melon is a sort of Cantaloupe. 

The ‘Potager du roi’ (Kitchen Garden of the King) near the Palace of Versailles was created between 1678 and 1683 by Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie to produce fresh vegetables and fruits for the table of the court of Louis XIV.  La Quintinie grew melons in a greenhouse in Versailles. To grow the heirloom French melon, a true cantaloupe species dating back to the 17th century, growers would suspend glass above the growing Charrentais to magnify and increase soil temperature to produce the super sweet melon. 

Provence is now the centre of Charrentais melon growing in France. Approximately 19 million tonnes of melons were grown in 2000, one-third in China; other important producing countries are Turkey, USA, Spain, Romania, Morocco, India, Mexico, and Egypt.

Cucumis mello var. agrestis is now proving to be one of many sub species of a particular genus which are of great interest to growers because of their inherent resistance to diseases. Huge cost savings could be made if their resistant characteristics can be isolated and re-introduced via breeding programmes into cultivars grown commercially throughout the world.

Edible uses    Fruit can be eaten raw but has a bitter flavour. Immature fruits are cooked as a vegetable. Seed an be eaten raw and is rich in oil with a nutty flavour but very fiddly to use because the seed is small and covered with a fibrous coat. The seed contains between 12.5 - 39.1% oil, an edible oil is derived from it.

Medicinal uses    The fruits can be used as a light cooling cleanser or moisturiser for the skin. They are also used as a first aid treatment for burns and abrasions. The flowers are expectorant and emetic. The fruit is stomachic i.e. helps to increase appetite and serves to tone the stomach and improve its function. The seed is antitussive, digestive, febrifuge and vermifuge. The root is diuretic and emetic.

DID YOU KNOW?     Most melons are eaten fresh ie. uncooked.    Melons are the 5th most popular fruit bought in the U.S.A.  Pieces of cantaloupe wrapped in prosciutto are a delicious antipasto!  Snake melon can grow up to 5 feet in length and is the variety used by Aborigines in Australia for their booming Didgeridoo!  

Cantaloupes were first introduced to North America by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the New World in 1494. Cantaloupe and Honeydew melons are the best ones for us to grow in the UK - preferably in a greenhouse or cold frame.  Cantaloupe melons are a good source of potassium, Vitamin A and Vitamin B9 and cantaloupes in general are a useful laxative.    

China produces eight million tons of melons per year or 25 percent of the world’s melon consumption.  Yubari King are expensive Japanese melons grown in Yubari on Hokkaido. In 2018, a pair of Yubari Kings was auctioned for 3.2 million yen ($29,000) in Sapporo.  

Melons should be eaten with a fork, not as is common in restaurants with a spoon as the back of the spoon anaesthetizes the taste buds losing half the flavour!   

All types of gourd are used throughout Europe and North America during Halloween when they are hollowed out and carved to become ‘jack-o-lanterns’ when a candle is lit inside.

The original illustration by Parkinson was actually one of his finished drawings, and later engraved by Daniel MacKenzie.  Banks does not seem to have collected or distributed seeds, and it is not listed in Aiton’s Hortus Kewensis, 1789.  

Perhaps because there were already several varieties of cultivars available which produced better fruits?   However, would it be fair to say that this is a plant where collecting the wild variety from a far-flung place might help to fill in the picture of its distribution and development?

Derrick Harmer