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Citrullus lanatus (Watermelon, Tsamma)

[= Citrullus vulgaris]

Life > eukaryotes > Archaeoplastida > Chloroplastida > Charophyta > Streptophytina > Plantae (land plants) > Tracheophyta (vascular plants) > Euphyllophyta > Lignophyta (woody plants) > Spermatophyta (seed plants) > Angiospermae (flowering plants) > Eudicotyledons > Core Eudicots > Rosids > Eurosid I > Order: Cucurbitales > Family: Cucurbitaceae

Citrullus lanatus (Watermelon, Tsamma) Citrullus lanatus (Watermelon, Tsamma)

A Tsamma, Citrullus lanatus, on the red Kalahari sands in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa. [photo Colin Paterson-Jones ©]

Citrullus lanatus (Watermelon, Tsamma)

Gemsbok (Oryx gazella) feeding on Tsammas (Citrullus lanatus) on the red Kalahari dune sands in winter in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa. [photo Colin Paterson-Jones ©]

Citrullus lanatus (Watermelon, Tsamma) Citrullus lanatus (Watermelon, Tsamma)
Watermelon. [photo H. Robertson, Iziko ©] Watermelon in cross-section. [photo H. Robertson, Iziko ©]

Wild Citrullus lanatus grows widely in Africa and Asia. In southern Africa it grows in the Kalahari where it is known as Tsamma. Thought to have been domesticated in Africa at least 4000 years ago and now grown worldwide, particularly in regions with long, hot summers.

Wild Citrullus lanatus grows widely in Africa and Asia. In southern Africa it grows in the Kalahari where it is known as Tsamma. These wild melons have been an important source of water and food to native tohabitants, as well as explorers crossing the Kalahari. Besides being able to eat the flesh, the seeds can be extracted from the fruit, roasted over a fire and ground into a white meal which is evidently rich in proteins and oil, and is tasty. This meal can also be used as a cosmetic: after chewing it and moistening it with saliva, it is smeared over the body, evidently resulting in a smoother, healthier, reddish coloured skin. The young fruit and leaves can be cooked and eaten as a vegetable. There is a bitter form of this wild melon which is evidently poisonous but which has been used medicinally.

The history of domestication of watermelons is obscure but it is known that by 2000 BC they were being grown in the Nile Valley in Egypt. A wide variety of watermelons have been cultivated in Africa, varying in fruit size, fruit shape, flesh colour, rind colour and seed colour. By 800 AD, watermelons had been introduced to India and by 1100 AD to China. Watermelons were introduced to Europe by the Moors during their conquest of Spain: there are records from Córdoba in 961 AD and Seville in 1158. Their cultivation spread slowly into the rest of Europe and by the early 1600's they were being widely cultivated although generally only on a small scale. Watermelons grow best where there are long, hot summers so as one goes north in Europe, conditions for growing them become more unsuitable. North American Indians took to watermelons (and Muskmelons) enthusiastically when they were introduced there by Spanish explorers in the 1500's. Through passing of seed from tribe to tribe, watermelon cultivation in North America spread faster than European exploration of that region. 

Watermelon flesh has only about 7% sugar and has moderate levels of Vitamins B and C. The seeds are made up of about 45% edible oil and 30-40% protein.

References

  • Sauer, J.D. 1993. Historical geography of crop plants - a select roster. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.

  • van Wyk, B.-E. 2005. Food Plants of the World - Identification, Culinary Uses and Nutritional Value. Briza, Pretoria.

  • van Wyk, B.-E. & Gericke, N. 2000. People's plants - a guide to useful plants of southern Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.

Text by Hamish Robertson


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