Bloom: Slurp like an Egyptian

WHAT would an Aussie summer be without a slice of refreshing watermelon straight from the fridge?

Plentiful, affordable and approximately 90 per cent water, Citrullus Vulgaris is a staple of hot countries the world over, with a history dating back well over 5000 years to sub-Saharan Africa.

By around 2500BC, hieroglyphics and recovered seeds within tombs indicate it had reached ancient Egypt, the prime civilisation of its era, and from there spread as far as India and China by the 10th century, before invading Moors brought it to Europe a hundred years later.

The “pig melons” you may have seen growing wild on the side of major highways on the outskirts of Perth closely resemble the watermelon’s ancestor, being small, bitter and generally only edible in a crisis – they’re also officially considered a ‘pest plant’ by Australian authorities.

The early Egyptians were the first to focus on selective breeding to improve the stock, bringing the size closer to what we consider normal today, as well as encouraging red flesh from the original yellowy-orange hue.

The Bible mentions what is likely watermelon as a favorite dish of the Israelites while in captivity in Egypt, and the modern Israelis are at the forefront of breeding watermelons to this day.

Technically a form of berry known as a ‘pepo’ rather than a fruit, and only loosely related to other more traditional melons, watermelons grow on long, trailing vines, combining a soft interior with the hard exterior that makes it so valuable, not only being easy to store and carry but also used since ancient times as a water storage canteen, once the outside has hardened in the sun.

Like tomatoes, China is by far the largest producer of watermelons in the modern era, producing nearly 70 per cent of 118 million tonnes globally.

CULTIVATION

• Watermelons thrive on out hot summers that kill off many other things in the garden. That being said, full sun in December/January requires a solid watering schedule, noting that as they are mostly water, they will need heavy watering at the centre of the vine.

• Make a nutrient-dense, well-draining mound with kitchen scraps and healthy, preferably organic fertilisers, and plant four seeds at the top of the hill. As they sprout, remove the smallest and retain the two strongest plants.

• As the vine spreads, you can begin to train them to avoid their sprawling nature. Straighten out an old-style wire coathanger, cut it into 15cm lengths then bend into a gentle u-shape. Move the vine where you want it, such as a spiral around the central mound or back-and-forth in a raised garden bed, then pin the vine down into position with the wire.

• As it is a vine with a central hub, focus your watering and feeding on the centre, rather than pointlessly wetting the outside skin of the melons of the leaves which can encourage powery mildew. As the melons come close to ripening cut back on watering, as this forces the melons to draw more from the vine, resulting in sweeter fruit.

• You can remove the tips of the vine to control the length, which will also focus the growth energy onto the remaining plant.

• Regularly check underneath melons for damage or pests, and if a melon is irrepearably damaged remove it so as to allow the remainder of the plant to continue.

TIPS

• Knock on a whole melon, if it sounds hollow it should be ready to cut open.

• Store whole melons in their skin at ambient temperature (not in direct sunlight) as this helps preserve antioxidants such as Lycopene.

• Once exposed to the air it should be refrigerated and preferably kept sealed in a container or covered in cling wrap. Only slice what you expect to use within a day or two to maintain freshness.

• Where the vine was attached to the melon and underneath where it was not exposed to the sun, a yellowish colour indicates that it ripened while still attached and was not picked too early.

• Watermelon seeds can be roasted as a healthy, tasty snack as has been done for centuries by the Egyptians. Simply remove the white seeds, leaving only large black ones, then roast on a medium heat in a pan with a pinch of salt until the first one pops like popcorn. Once cooled, open like a pistachio and eat the kernel inside.

• Don’t grow near potatoes, but corn and sunflowers make excellent companions.

• Get the seeds in now to take advantage of our hot dry weather!

By JUSTIN STAHL

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