How to grow seedless watermelon?

Americans consume more watermelon than anyone else, and with much of the United States sweltering under the blanket of this summer’s most intense heat wave, the sweet, fleshy, water-logged fruit is having its annual moment.

Watermelons, like all fruit, naturally produce seeds, but these days, the preferred type of watermelon is one that’s seedless. Last year, the seedless variety comprised 73% of all watermelon imported to the US, mainly from Mexico—a dramatic shift from just a decade ago. Seedless watermelons have defeated their seeded brethren.

The traditional Western watermelon sports a green rind, red flesh, and black seeds, which are slightly bitter under their hard shell. In China, another country serious about its watermelon, the seeds are commonly eaten raw or roasted, but Americans are more accustomed to spitting them out, hence the appeal of a watermelon that dispenses with the black seeds entirely.

But seedless these watermelons are not.

Bite into a so-called seedless watermelon, and you are sure to encounter the other, less-talked-about watermelon seed: white, soft, and translucent. They are the coatings of seeds that haven’t matured. In regular watermelons, about 5% of the seeds are likely to be these undeveloped white ones. But in “seedless” watermelons they predominate, a product of the fruit’s upbringing.

These watermelons are made by crossing pollen, which has 22 chromosomes per cell, with watermelon flowers that have been altered with chemicals. The treated flowers have 44 chromosomes per cell—double the normal amount. The result is a sterile hybrid with 33 chromosomes, known as a triploid. Its seeds are incapable of maturing into hard, black, developed watermelon seeds, and remain mostly hollow shells. But they’re still seeds, if more palatable and less fruitful. Supposedly seedless watermelons can contain hundreds of them.

AP / Ken James Those are seeds!

The National Watermelon Promotion Board, eager to dispel any notions of genetic modification, likens seedless watermelons to mules, a sterile cross-breed of horse and donkey. Free advice for Big Watermelon: You’d be better off drawing comparisons with bananas and cucumbers, which are commonly made “seedless” through similar processes.

The nomenclature, of course, is mostly beside the point. What matters is whether the fruit’s juicy flesh is sufficiently refreshing on a hot summer day, and that has to do with factors unrelated to the presence of seeds. In the US, growers market their watermelon varieties with names resembling designer drugs: Bush Sugarbaby, Millionaire, Ecstasy, Wonderland.

To my taste, though, a mouthful of white seeds can ruin the whole enterprise in a way that black seeds don’t. It’s not just nostalgia for the way watermelons used to be. The white seeds are mealy in large quantities, irksome when mixed into watermelon recipes, and more difficult to avoid than black seeds.

And, yes, it just feels wrong to call a watermelon seedless when its seeds are right there, glimmering in the summer sun.

Crop Production

Triploid or “seedless” watermelons were first developed in Japan over 50 years ago. Although the science of making seedless watermelons dates back over five decades, triploid watermelons were not commercialized until the past 15 to 20 years.

Seeds

One difficulty has been with the triploid seeds themselves. The embryos in triploid seeds are often poorly developed, usually filling only about 80 percent of the seed cavity. These poorly developed embryos are locked in thick seed coats. This situation makes triploid seed more difficult to germinate and can decrease seedling vigor. Special conditions for germinating triploid seed should always be employed including using higher temperatures and precise moisture control during germination. Direct seeding into the field generally results in poor, weak stands.

Seedless watermelons are always hybrids. This fact makes seed costlier. While these seedless plants are sterile, female flowers from these sterile plants can produce fruit if they are pollinated by normal pollen from a seeded watermelon or suitable pollinizer. In a seedless watermelon, occasionally a few hard seeds can develop for reasons explained below.

Planting and Growing

Triploid seedlings should be transplanted during mild weather or protected from harsh environmental conditions. A specific pollinizer or other diploid (seeded) variety must to be planted nearby to furnish viable pollen. The triploid flowers produce little, if any, viable pollen. The stigmas (female portion of the triploid’s flowers) are receptive to pollen, however, and require viable pollen in order to initiate the process of fruit development. Seed companies recommend specific pollinizers for each of their seedless watermelon varieties. Pollinators such as honeybees must be present to transfer the pollen from the diploid flowers to the triploid flowers. Triploid plants should not be subjected to stressful conditions such as lack of water, too much water, or temperature extremes.

Genetics

Normal watermelons are diploids having 22 chromosomes in their somatic cells (2X=22). Somatic cells are cells that make up everything in the plants with the exception of flowers and parts that develop from those flowers. Using traditional breeding techniques (that is, non-GMO techniques), special watermelons can be made called tetraploids, these tetraploids have 44 chromosomes (4X=44). When a tetraploid is crossed with a diploid, the resulting hybrid has 33 chromosomes (3X=33) which are seedless. These are called tripods.

Tetraploid watermelons lines are created in the greenhouse by treating the shoot apex of young diploid watermelon seedlings (or the seed) with a chemical called colchicine. This chemical inhibits cells division and tetraploidy is induced. The induced tetraploid watermelon plants are mostly fertile producing tetraploid progeny through their seed. Breeders maintain these tetraploid lines in isolation plots just as they do normal, diploid watermelons.

As stated above, the triploid plants are essentially sterile, since it produces defective gametes (gametes are pollen or egg cells.). A few fertile gametes are produced, however, but the number produced is less than 0.1%. Since a few fertile gametes are produced, a few hard seeds can develop; whether they occur or not depends on growing conditions as well as genetics. It is also not usual for the seedless watermelons to produce soft seed coats called “pips.” Pips are soft and generally do not negatively affect the quality of the internal flesh. The development of these pips is dependent on the variety and environmental conditions.

Watermelon is a summertime staple, and more prevalently we’re seeing it available in our grocery stores all throughout the year. Delightfully and deliciously, we can have our watermelon as much as we like and as often as we like. Seedless watermelon has made our lives easier, adding to the convenience of taking watermelon on the go as a snack or a refreshing post-workout fuel but also adding to the versatility we now have to play with watermelon in a huge variety of recipes.
But the question is frequently asked (and often incorrectly assumed) about where seedless watermelons came from?
Seedless watermelons were invented over 50 years ago, and they have few or no seeds. When we say seeds, we are talking about mature seeds, the black ones. Oftentimes, the white seed coats where a seed did not fully mature are assumed to be seeds. But this isn’t the case! They are perfectly safe to swallow while eating, and don’t worry – no watermelons will grow in your stomach despite the old wives’ tale.
So, how are seedless watermelons grown? Chromosomes are the building blocks that give characteristics, or traits, to living things including plants and watermelons. Watermelon breeders discovered that crossing a diploid plant (bearing the standard two sets of chromosomes) with a tetraploid plant (having four sets of chromosomes) results in a fruit that produces a triploid seed. (Yes, it has three sets of chromosomes.) This triploid seed is the seed that produces seedless watermelons!
In other words, a seedless watermelon is a sterile hybrid which is created by crossing male pollen for a watermelon, containing 22 chromosomes per cell, with a female watermelon flower with 44 chromosomes per cell. When this seeded fruit matures, the small, white seed coats inside contain 33 chromosomes, rendering it sterile and incapable of producing seeds. This is similar to the mule, produced by crossing a horse with a donkey – simple cross-breeding. And to be clear on the subject, this is not genetic modification. Cross-breeding is two parents and their offspring.
Importantly and interestingly, seedless watermelon still need to be pollinated by their seeded parent, so oftentimes growers will plant seeded and seedless in their field. However, the seeded commercial harvest and retail sales only add up to about 8%, meaning seedless watermelon makes up for 92% of all watermelon sales. Seedless watermelon is hugely popular in the United States and it is here to stay.

Plant of the Week: Watermelon, Seedless

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not promote, support or recommend plants featured in “Plant of the Week.” Please consult your local Extension office for plants suitable for your region.

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Seedless Watermelon
Latin: Citrullus lanatus “Seedless Triploids”

Summertime makes all of us watermelon lovers. A ripe, cold watermelon is hard to eat on a hot, sticky August day even though eating it with grace and dignity requires relaxing a few of Emily Post’s most cherished rules. Most watermelon is eaten outside where the rivulets of juice on your chin and the whiz of black seeds past your ear can be conveniently ignored. But, in an attempt to housebreak watermelon, breeders now offer seedless watermelon.

Watermelon, Citrullus lanatus, is a member of the cucumber family that originated from the warm climes of tropical Africa. They have been popular as summer garden fare since the time of the Egyptians. Their origin was thought to be China until the 1860s when explorer David Livingston found them growing wild in central Africa. Over 1,200 kinds of watermelons are grown commercially, ranging from the 200-pound behemoths grown at Hope to the volley ball size icebox melons popular with apartment dwellers.

This is not a modern day chicken and egg story. We know that the seedless watermelon vine must come from a seed. But, watermelons produced on these vines are barren, with little more than the trace of a seed coat. How can this be?

The system for producing seedless watermelons was developed by Professor H. Kihara, a Japanese scientist at Kyoto University, who described his work in 1951. Kihara used the new technology of his day, chromosome doubling using colchicine, to increase the number of chromosomes from 11 to 22 in one of his watermelon lines.

Chromosome doubling occurs occasionally in nature, but chemicals such as colchicine greatly increase the odds of it happening. Plants with a normal compliment of chromosomes are referred to as “diploids” while those with double the normal number of chromosomes are called “tetraploids”.

Kihara discovered that if the female line was a tetraploid (4x) and it was pollinated by a normal diploid (2x) watermelon line, viable triploid (3x) seeds would be produced. These triploid seeds produce more or less normal vines and flowers but therein lies another problem. Most plants will abort fruit that does not contain seeds, so some way had to be found to keep the watermelons on the vine.

This turned out to be relatively easy. By planting about a quarter of the patch in normal diploid watermelons, it was found that the fruit would form even though it lacked seeds. The pollen grains provided enough hormone to prevent the fruit from aborting.

Vic Watts, the former department head of the University of Arkansas Horticulture Department in Fayetteville, worked in the late 1950’s on further refining the technique. But, like many new technologies, seedless watermelons were slow to catch the attention of growers and consumers.

Seed set for the hybrid lines is usually low, often averaging only about 10 percent of what a normal seeded variety produces. This means that seedless watermelon seed tends to be five to eight times more expensive than conventional seed.

It was not until about 1990 that seedless watermelons began to gain popularity. Today, half of the watermelons grown in California are seedless. The average seedless melon is in the 8- to 12-pound range, smaller than what most Arkansans prefer. Most Arkansas producers grow the larger, seeded melons that typically weigh in at 35 to 40 pounds.

A watermelon contains around 12 percent sugar when fully ripe. Because sugar accumulation stops as soon as the melon is picked, being able to judge full ripeness is an art that all good watermelon thieves learn at an early age.

Most seed companies offer seedless watermelons for their customers. Because seed germination is slow, seedless watermelons are usually grown from transplants. Soil temperature of 85EF is required to assure good germination. Once the plants are established, seedless watermelons are grown like conventional kinds. A warm, deep, fertile sandy soil is best for watermelon production.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist – Ornamentals
Extension News – August 29, 2003

The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.

Growing Seedless Watermelons

Watermelons are one of the sweetest, juiciest, and most refreshing foods you can grow. They are the quintessential summer snack food. They’re not only great tasting, they’re good for you as well. Watermelons are loaded with vitamins A, B6, and C and new research has found that they also contain lycopene, a cancer-fighting compound.

While kids may love spitting watermelon seeds as they eat this delicious fruit, you can now find a number of seedless varieties to grow at home. Although they’re a little more finicky to grow than seeded varieties, seedless watermelons are much easier to eat and to use in soups and fruit salads.

Seedless Watermelons

The obvious question is, “How do you get seed for seedless watermelons?” Seedless watermelons are actually genetically different from their seeded relatives, and are created through a combination of conventional hybrid breeding and the application of a plant hormone. The resulting seeds have 3 sets of chromosomes (known as triploid seeds). The seeds are sterile, meaning they will produce plants and fruits but the seeds within the fruits are not viable. The fruits tend to weigh 10 to 20 pounds, and the flesh comes in a range of colors from yellow to dark red.

Here are some of the best varieties to try.

‘Sweet Slice’ looks similar to the classic ‘Crimson Sweet’. It has sweet, red flesh and a tough rind. ‘Sweet Slice Plus’ is a highly disease-resistant version of ‘Sweet Slice’. ‘Sunny’ is a yellow-gold, sweet fleshed variety with a round, oval shape and tolerance to fusarium wilt. ‘Orange Sunshine’ has deep orange flesh with a tough, sunburn-resistant rind.

Planting and Growing Watermelons

Seedless watermelons require warm soil for germination. After all danger of frost has passed in your area and your soil temperatures are 70 degrees F at 4 inches deep, sow 3 to 4 seeds in hills spaced 3 to 5 feet apart. Thin to the two strongest seedlings.

In cool summer areas, consider starting seedlings indoors to transplant in the garden 2 weeks after your last frost date. Using 2-inch diameter pots, sow 2 seeds per pot and thin to the strongest seedling after germination. Transplant into the garden 3 to 4 weeks later, while they have no more than 3 true leaves per plant – otherwise they won’t adjust well to transplanting and will be stressed and stunted.

Seedless watermelons require cross pollination by seeded varieties in order to produce fruit. Sow at least one seeded variety in the area to insure a crop.

Watermelon Care

Watermelon need a lot of water and nutrients. Before planting amend the soil with a 2- to 3-inch-thick layer of compost or composted manure. In cool summer areas, lay black or dark green plastic mulch on the planting beds 2 weeks before planting to heat up the soil. Sow seeds or set transplants at the proper spacing in holes poked through the plastic.

Since watermelons are 90 percent water, they need a constant supply of moisture. Consider running a soaker hose under the mulch to keep soil evenly moist. When watering by hand, apply enough water to soak into the soil to a depth of 6 inches. Keep the area around the plants free of weeds. Side dress the vines with 1/2 pound of a balanced fertilizer when they start to run, and again when the fruits set.

Squash vine borers and cucumber beetles are the primary insect pests of watermelons. (See the “Question of the Week” below for cucumber beetle control options.) Squash vine borers hatch into small larvae that tunnel into vines, eventually causing plants to wilt and die. Cover young plants with a floating row cover to prevent the adult fly from laying eggs. Remove the cover when watermelons begin to flower so they can be pollinated. Inject Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) in the vines if borers are present or physically remove the larvae by slitting the stem with a sharp razor and picking out the borers. Cover the stem with soil afterwards to encourage the vine to grow new roots and regain its vitality.

To avoid diseases in your watermelon patch, choose resistant varieties, rotate crops, and clean up crop debris in the fall.

Harvesting Watermelons

Deciding when to harvest watermelons can be a challenge. Here are a few cues. When the “belly” (the side of the fruit laying on the ground) turns from white to a creamy yellow color and the overall color of the watermelon dulls, it’s time to pick your melon.

Some gardeners can tell if a melon is ripe by thumping it with their thumb. Unripe melons make a “ringing” sound, while ripe ones make a more “muffled” sound.

Also, check the tendrils closest to the fruit. Tendrils are the curly-cues attached to the vines that wrap around nearby plants or other objects to support the vine. When the tendril closest to the fruit turns brown and dries up, the watermelon is ripe.

Don’t be concerned if some of the fruits have a few seeds. This is normal, especially if the vines didn’t receive enough water. Also, remember that your pollinator plant will produce seeded fruits, while the triploid varieties will be seedless.

QUESTION OF THE WEEK

Controlling Cucumber Beetles

Q. There are small, narrow beetles with black and yellow stripes chewing holes in my young cucumber plants. What can I do to protect the vines?

A. Cucumber beetles harm plants by feeding on the leaves and flowers, plus they can transmit diseases among melon and cucumber plants. Handpick them or try using row covers to keep them off the plants. If you pin the fabric tightly to the soil, that should also deter “crawling” insects, such as squash bugs. It’s important to check under the cover frequently, though, for other pests. And be sure to remove the row covers when for pollination.You can also grow cucumber varieties, such as ‘Diva’, that don’t require pollination to set fruit.

Another trick is to bury a bright yellow margarine tub in the garden with its lip even with the soil line. Coat the inside with a sticky substance, such as Tanglefoot. The cucumber beetles attracted to the color (which resembles cucumber and melon blossoms) and get caught in the tub. Also, try spraying with a neem-based repellent (“neem” is an extract of the neem tree seed) according to the label directions.

Where Did All The Watermelon Seeds Go?

Watermelon with seeds is getting harder to find at the supermarket. iStockphoto.com hide caption

toggle caption iStockphoto.com

Watermelon with seeds is getting harder to find at the supermarket.

iStockphoto.com

Many people think of the seedless watermelons popping up at grocery stores and markets everywhere in the last few years as a marvel of modern scientific technology. In fact, more than 60 percent of watermelon shoppers seek this smoother pink flesh, and the numbers are increasing every year, according to a recent survey done for the National Watermelon Promotion Board.

The seedless melons sure are easier to eat and cut up for fruit salads. But they somehow don’t taste the way they did when seed-spitting contests were the highlights of our summers.

So here at The Salt we wondered, are watermelons destined to go the way of supermarket tomatoes, where flavor has been sacrificed for convenience?

Before we get to that, a quick science lesson: How do you get a seedless watermelon? In a word – colchicine. The chemical, derived from the crocus and developed to treat and prevent gout since ancient Egypt, has found a niche in plant biology because of the way it impacts chromosome development.

According to North Carolina State University’s research blog, The Abstract, when young watermelon plants are treated with colchicine,

“… the eggs in the flowers develop with two sets of chromosomes (2n), instead of one. When the eggs are pollinated, they create triploid cells … These cells are capable of maturing into fruit, but the seeds in that fruit are not genetically viable – so they can’t be fertilized and develop the hard, black .”

Hence, you get the little thin white “seeds” that you see in seedless watermelon, as opposed to the hard black ones good for spitting into your sister’s hair (not that I’m admitting anything here).

Basically, “it’s the watermelon version of the mule,” as our colleague Andrea Seabrook put it a few years back. And that’s what the public demands, so that’s what most producers are growing.

That brings us back to the question of what these immature seeds do to flavor.

The official word: If you think seedless watermelons taste bland compared to the seeded ones, it’s all in your head. It’s nostalgia, pure and simple, says Todd Wehner of N.C. State’s horticultural science department.

Who can blame us when Mark Twain’s Pudd’nHead Wilson said it so eloquently:

“It is the chief of this world’s luxuries, king by the grace of God over all the fruits of the earth. When one has tasted it, he knows what the angels eat. It was not a Southern watermelon that Eve took; we know it because she repented.”

What really matters with watermelons is when they were harvested and how far they’ve traveled, Wehner says.

In a fair taste test between seeded and seedless watermelons picked fresh from a field, “the triploids always win,” he says. The triploids — the seedless ones — have three sets of genes instead of two, so any genes that affect sweetness, flavor, and texture are more likely to be expressed.

And, he adds, some people prefer the caramel flavor of the Sugar baby variety, while others like the straight watermelon flavor of Crimson sweets. So the definition of “sweet” is variable.

While the supermarket may only have one or two varieties of the red seedless ones these days, seed catalogs and farmers’ markets offer dozens more.

I feel an experiment coming on.

When thinking about watermelon, most of us visualize a large, round fruit that’s bright green on the outside, and dark red on the inside. Cut it open, and you’ll reveal the vibrantly colored flesh with seeds speckled throughout. If you were to talk about the specific look of these seeds, you would probably picture and describe them as black. This classic vision of an iconic, summertime fruit is based on a traditional look, and memories of watermelons from the past, but if you actually cut one open today, you would see very few of those larger and more solid, black seeds that you’re used to. Instead, you’ll be met with white versions that are far less substantial in comparison.

Black Vs. White

More than a mere change of appearance, the two types of seeds found in watermelons are very different, but the difference is caused by one simple factor; maturity. Basically speaking, black seeds are mature seeds, and white ones are not. If you bury one of each in the ground, only the dark and fertile seed would result in a new plant growing. The white ones, in any quantity, would not. Although this may seem like a minor variance, this one factor leads to a number of pretty significant differences.

Black Seeds

When compared to their pale counterparts, these seeds will be much bigger in size. They will be thicker in girth, and the shell will be hard with dark black coloration. You can eat this type of seed, but most people spit them out while enjoying the fresh fruit. If you did bite down on one, it would be hard and crunchy between your teeth. You’ll find this type of seed in a smaller percentage of melons found in grocery stores due to current consumer trends, but they will always be considered “regular” when referring to natural and normal watermelon seeds.

White Seeds

These lightly colored seeds are often almost translucent in color, but they are generally referred to as white. Due to convenience and other factors, many watermelon varieties are altered to encourage infertile seeds, and discourage any seeds from reaching full maturity. You’ll always find a few of these immature seeds in any watermelon, but newer “seedless” varieties attempt to eliminate black seeds altogether. The small and soft white seeds are easily consumed without a thought because there is little taste or crunch, if any, when you encounter one. Although some people claim that the fruit tastes different in melons with white seeds, farmers and other experts seem to agree that breeding to reduce seed maturity does not actually change the taste.

How Many Are There?

Sometimes it seems like there are too many, and that may be a big reason why so many people like the white ones, but on average, every watermelon has about the same number of seeds. Give or take. The numbers show that the average watermelon grown in the United States has about 250 to 750 seeds, and there are usually about 5 percent that are still immature come harvest time. Every one will begin life immature and white, but depending on variety of fruit, many will grow, harden, and change color with time.

What Makes Them White?

If allowed to grow naturally, most seeds inside a watermelon will reach full maturity, and for American varieties, this means a large, black appearance. Because most people seem to prefer melons without obstacles, farmers are mostly growing fruit that is full of immature white seeds that are more readily edible, and they use a chemical reaction to make it happen.

Colchicine is a chemical derived from the crocus plant, and it was originally developed as a treatment for gout in ancient Egypt. In more recent times, it has been used by scientists to impact certain aspects of chromosome development in plants. When watermelon plants are treated with this chemical, the flowers will end up developing two sets of chromosomes instead of one. When these treated flowers are pollinated, they create triploid cells that are capable of developing into fruit, but not capable of producing genetically viable seeds. For this reason, they will be unable to be fertilized, so they will never mature, or develop the hard black seed coat.

Hard White Seeds?

The underdeveloped and immature seeds that most people refer to as white here in the United States should not be confused with the mature, white seeds that can be found in specific varieties grown in China and parts of the Middle East. Watermelon is a versatile fruit with a wide range of varieties and combinations grown worldwide, so you can find ones with rind, seed, and flesh colors that you would consider weird, but the red and black interior Americans are used to is nothing more than an aesthetic choice of farmers that became a household standard. If you’re slicing into a melon on the other side of the planet, the answer might be slightly different, but around here the question usually comes up when someone notices the immature white seeds in comparison to the shiny black ones, or when conversing about so-called seedless versions of the fruit.

The Benefits

Although most people justy spit them out, black watermelon seeds actually have impressive nutritional value, and they are widely consumed as a snack food, all around the world. Usually roasted and salted like sunflower seeds, they are high in protein and other vital nutrients. Instead of cooking them, you can also sprout them to eat them raw, or use as an ingredient in a range of recipes. Despite the fact that most people typically dispose of them, when you eliminate black seeds, you also forfeit a potential food source and a tasty treat.

White seeds, in comparison, offer the ultimate in convenience and safety. You won’t be able to use them outside of the melon, and they won’t offer any additional nutritional value, but they do make it less annoying for many people to eat watermelon. Kids and adults can easily consume these baby-size seeds along with the flesh, and there’s no worry about choking, digestion, or plants growing in your stomach(this one’s not actually possible). With no anxiety or burden caused by the need to spit seeds to the side, many people find it easier to enjoy this delicious fruit.

When I was younger I believed everything I was told. I believed that if you bit your finger nails you would grow a hand in your stomach; I believed that if you swallowed gum it would stick into your stomach forever; and I believed that eating black watermelon seeds would result in growing a massive watermelon in my stomach.

Although I no longer spend time picking the seeds out of my watermelon, I never officially debunked that myth. I am taking you along with me to discover the truth: can you eat black watermelon seeds?

So…What’s the deal?

Tess Wei

Before we get into the logistics, I will answer your burning question: , you cannot grow a watermelon in your stomach. Black watermelon seeds can be planted to grow watermelons, but your stomach does not create the proper environment for a watermelon.

If you’re still a little nervous, chew up the watermelon seed when you eat them. In fact, you might want to chew it! Watermelon seeds are filled with nutrients.

Are watermelon seeds good for you?

Katherine Baker

It’s true, watermelon seeds are low cal and packed with magnesium, iron, folate, and good fats. All of these nutrients are essential for your brain and body. Basically, watermelon is delicious, nutritious and perfect to enjoy all day everyday.

What’s the difference with black and white seeds?

Jocelyn Hsu

Interesting you asked, the difference between black and white watermelon seeds is age. All watermelon seeds start off small and white, but grow to be the larger black seeds we know (and previously feared).

There are white-seeded watermelons that are more common in Asia and the Middle East, but the black seeded are more common in the US because it’s all about aesthetic.

Watermelon is a perfect summer treat and I know that I will be incorporating it into all my meals (now that I know I won’t be worried about growing one in my stomach). Plus, it is easily added to salsas, margaritas, smoothies, and even sushi.

Now go forth and enjoy without fear.

On eating watermelon in front of white people: “I’m not as free as I thought”

My hand hovered over the fruit tray, about to spear a chunk of watermelon, when a white person walked up. I paused.

It didn’t matter that she was a colleague and likely focused, like I was, on getting a pre-lunch snack during a long meeting. I moved my fork carefully away from the watermelon, grazing over the pineapple, and picked strawberries instead.

Safer territory, I thought. Safer fruit.

Anxiety made me reconsider my choice. It stopped me from enjoying watermelon on a scorching Mississippi day among an unusually diverse crowd of writers at an otherwise uneventful work training. But even though I was surrounded by many black and brown faces, it was the presence of white people — even these aware, friendly, and familiar white people — that gave me literal pause. I didn’t want to be an updated version of that Sambo figure, tap-dancing and braying in joy at a succulent watermelon wedge.

A sheet music cover image of “By the Watermelon Vine Lindy Lou” by Thos S. Allen; Boston, Massachusetts, 1904. Sheridan Libraries/Levy/Gado/Getty Images

I couldn’t remember when this watermelon-shame seeped into my eating. I had eaten small triangles of watermelon on porches and at neighborhood cookouts since I was “knee high to a grasshopper” as a child. These were the only occasions that public spitting of the seeds — an uncouth habit, according to my parents — was allowed.

My mother covered our kitchen table with smudgy newspaper to catch the juice that ran down my scrawny arms. But those moments, I realized, were cloistered events within my family home, reunions, or the circle of our middle-class black neighborhood in North Carolina, where white families had fled the nice brick ranches when people like us arrived.

Yet between childhood and work meetings, something had changed. Maybe it was during the Obama era, when bitter and biased white public officials and “blacklashers” turned out in droves to post presidential watermelon “jokes” on Facebook. Banana-eating GIFs. Monkey memes. The first lady depicted as a monster. The commander in chief photoshopped into a historic Black Panther photo. At the same time that some people were busy building post-racial castles in the air — few black people among them — the pushback against a black president underlined the dangerous endurance of racism.

And when “they went low,” I went watermelon-less.

It is a sobering thing to face your interior white supremacist nag. I had mild indigestion all day, but it had nothing to do with the fruit. It was a profound unease that I, as a black historian who fancies myself informed and evolved, would be so complicit with a stereotype. I was angry with myself for letting racist rhetoric take over my taste buds.

It was strange to apprehend: I’m not as free as I thought I was.

How watermelon became a racist stereotype

“Stereotype threat,” a friend matter-of-factly wrote on Facebook when I posted about my watermelon-eating fear.

In 1995, psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson coined the term, applying it to situations when people are “at risk of confirming … a negative stereotype about one’s group.” They applied the idea to education, studying the controversial question of whether stereotypes that black people are less smart make black students distance themselves from academic achievement; in their study, black students who heard that a half-hour test measured intelligence performed worse than white students.

While I don’t buy into the “culture of unachievement” narrative, I read a lesson in the research: that little worm of white supremacy had embedded its way into my consciousness and changed my behavior. That’s why I stopped myself from eating watermelon, frozen as a Kara Walker silhouette stuck in some gross two-dimensional human rights violation.

But how did this stereotype come to be? No fruit — with the exception of that troublesome apple Eve got blamed for — has been infused with such negative significance. It could be that the watermelon came to this country with a bit of a reputation as an Other; the fruit probably originated in arid African climates (ancient Egyptians even painted them or left them in pharaonic tombs, probably as water sources for the dead as they traveled thirsty between worlds). At some point, watermelons emigrated to the Mediterranean, and pink-fleshed, green-skinned melons — the ones we know so well today — began showing up in 17th-century still-life paintings.

“Still life with fruit” by Giuseppe Recco, 1634-1695. De Agostini via Getty Images

Historian William Black takes a stab at answering this question in his recent journal article “How Watermelons Became Black: Emancipation and the Origins of a Racist Trope.” He points to a post-Civil War genesis for racialized watermelon narratives. One theory: The fruit’s rapacious vines spread without much tending, rendering it the perfect produce for the lazy. Perverse racial logic then attached the watermelon to newly freed people, who built a nation in bondage but were slandered as indolent loafers after the Civil War. A watermelon’s size meant that consumption had to be a singular activity; one could not casually work and gnaw on this fruit.

As freed people entered the market economy — as wage earners, fruit stand vendors, and emancipated hustlers — they sold watermelons in public squares and pocketed the money for themselves. Once the consumed, the nation’s essential free laborers became sellers and consumers, wrote Black. In the eyes of Southern whites, black people flaunted their freedom, disturbed the “natural” order of things, and had the nerve to eat what they pleased — and relish it. White supremacist haters took the most exception to black pleasure and enjoyment.

Unloading watermelons at the farmers market in Washington, DC, circa 1942. Buyenlarge/Getty Images

American media of the late 19th and early 20th centuries also thrived on the idea that black Americans had a pathological weakness for watermelon. Post-Civil War newspapers were filled with predictable anecdotes about black fruit thieves (often met by armed plantation owners who argued that their melons were an irresistible draw).

Medical journals wrote in scientific earnestness of the black patients — always black patients — whose intestines were clogged by watermelon seeds. An 1888 report by Dr. D.Z. Holliday of Harlem, Georgia, described how he broke down a bowel obstruction using rectal manipulation, a tobacco enema, and castor oil. Once the mass was “released,” he claimed to have counted 820 seeds, ingested during one man’s night of watermelon bacchanalia. Such intemperate men could not be trusted.

Neither could such patently ridiculous stories, repeated until they masqueraded as truth. But the thing is, stereotypes tell on the stereotypers more than the vilified. White people tried to implicate black appetites and black character through watermelon. But they revealed the lengths to which they would go to define propriety and argue that black people were simpletons who needed to be controlled.

And here was this stereotype controlling me. And for what: something as mundane and harmless as whether I ate a piece of fruit. Toni Morrison once called this “racism’s lethal cling.” How would I disentangle myself?

Breaking through the trope

I polled black friends if they felt even the faintest watermelon unease. One had actually observed a white woman asking a black coworker if they had taken all the watermelon from a catering tray, clearly a funny quip in her mind. A former boarding school student assiduously dodged watermelon slices in the cafeteria. There was another friend who refused a free watermelon on the beach, afraid that the white man offering it was not being generous, but trolling her in a nasty joke.

Much like agonizing over watermelon, another friend mused that she had packed leftover fried chicken for lunch that day but had hoped to sidestep the stigma by eating it real proper-like, with a fork and not with her teeth tearing the flesh off the bone.

Many of my online friends reveled in giving the finger to the white gaze, though. They ate watermelon with gusto whenever and wherever, laughing on the inside all the while — or on the outside, head thrown back Zora Neale Hurston-style. Some grew up in Caribbean or other countries where white colonialism had ruled, but they were free from the everyday indignities of Jim Crow. What white people thought just didn’t register with them.

Sheet music by Fred Lyons circa 1883. Sheridan Libraries/Levy/Gado/Getty Images

Their confidence stung me a bit, even if their responses were not intended as rebukes. Apparently, I had not passed lessons in racial fortitude and carefree living in an unblushingly prejudiced society. More than a few pointed out that white people in the South are also great admirers of watermelon and fried chicken. “Fakers!” exclaimed one. A doctor friend from Louisiana wrote: “Trying to shame us for things they do too is the white supremacy way.” I found myself nodding and talking out loud to my computer.

All this I understood intellectually. But that telling pause and pivot, when I turned self-consciously from the melon and browsed the berries, lingered in my mind. I didn’t like the quiet, nearly undetectable creep of the white gaze. I asked myself if there were other places in my life where I practiced meaningless self-denial to be “middle-class respectable” and to not become a caricature incarnate. I came up with no answers, only the conclusion that one of racism’s superpowers is how it propagates illogical shame and projects it upon the undeserving.

After the fruit tray epiphany, I decided that the only way to go was self-induced exposure therapy. I would eat watermelon in public, in white company, in work settings, from roadside stands.

And I did, with no fanfare, for the first time at another work conference. I piled my plastic plate high with watermelon chunks and smiled, chatting with collaborators. I ignored the jump of my pulse. If anyone noted my race, my plate, and how I watched them like a TV for any hint of a reaction, I didn’t notice.

As I kept eating, I did notice how pink and juicy the watermelon was. Perhaps it was an exceptional late-summer melon, the kind to savor on the front porch. Or maybe the sublime taste was the heightened sensation of liberation in progress, of the maligned melon becoming my freedom fruit.

Cynthia R. Greenlee, PhD, is a North Carolina-based historian, journalist, and editor. Her writing has appeared in Literary Hub, Longreads, Smithsonian, and Vice, among others. Find her on Twitter @CynthiaGreenlee.

How Does Seedless Fruit Reproduce?

Where does seedless fruit come from and how does it reproduce?

Most seedless fruit comes about the same way as other fruits, which commonly are grown from cuttings or grafts and not seeds. To make a cutting, a branch or vine is cut from a plant, fed a nutrient mixture, and put in dirt, where leaves and roots form. In a graft, the branch, vine, or bud is grown right into another plant’s trunk or rootstalk. With the exception of seedless watermelons, which have a complicated propagation method, seedless fruit can’t reproduce on its own—it must be grafted each time.

Seedless fruit originated from genetic mutations that humans discovered and cultivated. For example, seedless navel oranges date back to the 19th century and a single mutant tree in Brazil, whose progeny all come from buds grafted onto other citrus trees.

Scientists are working continually to produce new varieties of seedless fruit, either by breeding different varieties together or by stimulating genetic mutations. In recent years, they have created some seedless citrus crops by irradiating plant seeds, which causes mutations. Some of these mutations are fatal to the plant, some are benign; but sometimes these irradiated seeds produce a suitable seedless fruit, and the plants are propagated through budding.

Researchers may have to look at thousands of seedlings to find a plant that’s not only seedless but also attractive to farmers and consumers. David Ramming, a research horticulturalist with the USDA research center in Parlier, California, was involved recently in the introduction of two new species of grapes, the Sweet Scarlet and the Scarlet Royal. He says the goal is to create disease-resistant seedless fruit that tastes good and can be grown in different hemispheres. “We’ve got new varieties in the works all the time,” says Ramming. “We’re trying not just to have seedless fruit that tastes good, but to make it available to grocers all year round.”

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