Sunday, August 23, 2015

Watermelon Origins

Weather: Afternoon temperatures in the high 80s with humidity levels below 10% in Santa Fé and everything in a haze of smoke particles drifting down from the Pacific northwest Thursday and Friday; last useful rain 8/8.

What’s blooming in the area: Hybrid tea roses, bird of paradise, buddleia, silver lace vine, trumpet creeper, rose of Sharon, hollyhock, datura, morning glories, sweet pea, alfalfa, Russian sage, annual four o’clock, bouncing Bess, David and purple garden phlox, red amaranth, cultivated sunflowers, coreopsis, blanket flower, yellow yarrow, zinnias.

Beyond the walls and fences: Yellow mullein, goat’s head, white sweet clover, bindweed, green-leaf five-eyes, yellow evening primroses, leather leaf globe mallow, green amaranth, pigweed, Hopi tea, plains paper flower, horseweed, wild lettuce, flea bane, gumweed, goldenrod, áñil del muerto, Tahoka daisy, golden hairy asters; side oats and black grama grasses; Virginia creeper stems turning bright red.

In my yard: Rugosa roses, yellow potentilla, fernbush, caryopteris, garlic chives, California poppy, lady bells, calamintha, larkspur, winecup mallow, pink evening primrose, nasturtium, Maximilian sunflowers, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, chocolate flower, bachelor button, white yarrow, purple and cut-leaf coneflowers, Mönch aster, yellow and reseeded Sensation cosmos.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, snapdragon, moss roses, marigold, gazania.

What’s blooming inside: Zonal geraniums.

Animal sightings: Small birds, geckos, cabbage butterflies, grasshoppers, hornets.

Weekly update: Watermelons evolved in Africa and were brought to this country by slaves. That’s the standard Black and Anglo-American history of Citrullus lanatus. It’s quite true, but has little to do with Native Americans or New Mexico.

When Juan de Oñate came up the Río Grande to San Juan in 1598, the pueblos already were growing "beans, corns, and squashes, melons and rich sloes of Castile and grapes in quantity through the desert." At that time, the only African slave anyone had seen was a Moor, Esteban, who accompanied Marcos de Niza. The Zuñi had dispatched him in 1539 before he left any seed.

When Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet were exploring the Mississippi river in 1673, they visited the Illinois at modern-day Peoria. They were growing " beans and melons, which are Excellent, especially those that have red seeds."

When the two Frenchmen reached the Arkansas river, they could go no farther south. Slave traders in Charleston had armed eastern bands, who were taking captives along the Mississippi drainage to sell to sugar plantations in Barbados. The sugar boom didn’t occur until the 1680s. The English hadn’t yet developed strong trade relations with Africa.

The band they met was so terrorized by the Cherokee they didn’t dare leave its village. The Quapaw subsisted on corn, with some occasional dog’s meat. Marquette noted, "we ate no other fruit there than watermelons."

If you accept the standard origin tale for watermelon, it’s not only a surprise the fruit preceded European explorers into the interior, but it’s also unexpected that Oñate’s chronicler recognized melons when he saw them and had a word to describe them, melón. Similarly, Marquette knew a watermelon when he saw it, even though the French didn’t import slaves into Illinois country until 1719.

The Citrullus genus evolved in southern Africa as a dryland plant. Four primary species are recognized today; many other variants are found in southern Africa. The citron of the Kalahari desert was grown as a water source in the dry period or dried, then cooked. The colocynth from north African deserts was used medicinally and for the oil extracted from its seeds. Egusi seeds were eaten in west Africa. This was the only one grown in an area affected by slave raids.

The sweet melon has a much smaller genome than the others, suggesting it was selected from a single population when it was domesticated in northeastern Africa. Sweetness is a recessive gene. This is the one known from 4,500-year-old Egyptian tombs.

Moors took the fruit to al-’Andalus where ‘Arib ibn Sa‘d reported dulla‘ growing in 961. In Sevilla in 1158, Ibn al-Awwam reported two types of watermelons. One had a red seed, the other was black. It sounds like they had imported the oily, medicinal variety from north Africa and the sweet melon from northeast Africa. The later, battikh sindi, became sandía.

The Spanish apparently took them everywhere. The official chronicler for the Council of the Indies wrote "pumpkins and melons were picked twenty-eight days after the seeds were sown" along the coast of what’s now Panama. The maturity date’s unlikely, but, if nothing else, his 1630 comments signified intent.

Once the Spanish began shipping silver back to Europe, they needed to protect the route along the Florida coast from privateers. In 1566, they built a fort at Santa Elena, now Port Royale, South Carolina. Jeanette Thurber Connor found evidence "maize, pumpkins and watermelons" were growing on the island in 1576.

Twenty some years later, the Guale destroyed the Franciscan mission there. The same year, 1597, a Spanish soldier noted the Tama up the Ocmulgee river in modern Georgia were growing "watermelons and other fruits."

Watermelons spread north in Europe. Harry Paris and his colleagues found the earliest manuscript with an accurate image was produced in Salerno, Italy, around 1300. The fruit appeared in a Lombard document around 1385.

They didn’t appear in northern France until 1430, by which time they were being depicted as a commercial crop in northern Italy. The botanists noted only the citron could be grown in the north. Before modern breeding, the dessert melon wouldn’t thrive or ripen there.

John Gerard described sugar melons in England in 1597, but was only able to grow citrons. The latter were boiled, and kept for some time. They must have diffused from the nobility because the engineer who laid out Charlestown said, they were "abounding in Massachusetts in 1629."

Thirty-five years later, John Josselyn noted local New England tribes were growing water-mellon and that it was a "rare cooler of Feavers, and excellent against the stone." From that one would guess they were growing a medicinal variety.

If one were going to guess the source of the seeds planted by Sioux-speaking Quapaw met by Père Marquette, one would suspect the Spanish in Florida. In the twentieth century, the Cherokee were using "seed tea for kidney trouble." The Sioux-speaking Illinois could have obtained English or Spanish seeds. The Iroquois, who harassed both Illinois and New England, mentioned a "decoction of roots and seeds" for "urine stoppage" in the 1970s.

Notes: The citron or tsamma watermelon is Citrullus lanatus citroides; colocynth is Citrullus colocynthis, egusi is Citrullus lanatus mucosospermus, and the common supermarket melon is Citrullus lanatus lanatus.

‘Arib ibn Sa‘d. Kitab al-Anwa’, translated as The Calendar of Cordoba for the year 961; quotation from Miquel Forcada, "Calendar of Córdoba," in Encyclopaedia of Islam, Three, edited by Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, and Everett Rowson.

Blake, Leonard W. "Early Acceptance of Watermelon by Indians of the United States," Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 1:193-199:1981.

Connor, J. T. Colonial Records of Spanish Florida, volume 1, 1925, quoted by Blake. She cites a "farmer named Juan Serrano."

Gerard, John. Gerard’s Herball, 1597, cited by Paris, 2013.

Hamel, Paul B. and Mary U. Chiltoskey. Cherokee Plants and Their Uses, 1975.

Herrick, James William. Iroquois Medical Botany, 1977, quoted by Dan Moerman, Native American Ethnobotany, 1998.

Ibn al-Awwam. Kitab al-Filaha, late 1100's, 1864 French translation by Jean Jacques Clement-Mullet translated by Blake.

Josselyn, John. An Account of Two Voyages to New England, 1865 edition.

Marquette, Jacques. Journal included in Claude Dablon’s "Le Premier Voÿage Qu’a Fait Le P. Marquette vers le Nouveau Mexique," translated by Reuben Gold Thwaites in The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, volume 59, 1899.

Martyr d’Anghiera, Peter. De Orbe Novo, 1530, quoted by William W. Dunmire, Gardens of New Spain, 2004.

Paris, Harry S. "Origin and Emergence of the Sweet Dessert Watermelon, Citrullus lanatus," Annals of Botany 116:133-148:2015.

_____, Marie-Christine Daunay, and Jules Janick. Medieval Iconography of Watermelons in Mediterranean Europe, Annals of Botany 112:867-879:2013

Salas, Gaspar de. Testigo, 1597, in Manuel Serrano y Sanz, Documentos Históricos de la Florida y la Luisiana, 1912; he used sandías.

Sturtevant, Edward Lewis. Sturtevant’s Edible Plants of the World, edited by U. P. Hedrick, 1919; quotes Master Graves. Alexander Young identified him as Thomas Graves in Chronicles of the First Planters of the Colony of Massachusetts, volume 3, 1846.

Villagrá, Gaspar Pérez de. Historia de la Nueva México, 1610, translated and edited by Miguel Encinias, Alfred Rodrígue and Joseph P. Sánchez, 1992. He used the two-syllable melón instead of the three syllable sandía when he wrote his chronicle in verse. It’s a matter of interpretation: did he mean other kinds of melons or was he exercising poetic licence for watermelons?

Photographs: Taken 21 August 2015 in one yard near the village. #1 is round and may be a seedless melon. They require a pollinator variety be planted, which may be #2. The first has the more desirable location.

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