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The Red Seeded Citron Melon

Bob Wildfong

Of all the heritage fruits and vegetables that were once indispensible but now nearly forgotten, the Red Seeded Citron melon is one of the most fascinating. It was widely grown by families all across the country only a few generations ago, but most gardeners haven't seen one since the 1930s or 40s.

The "citron", as it was called, looks like a small watermelon about the size of a five-pin bowling ball. In fact it is a variety of watermelon but you wouldn't think that once you cut it open. The interior is hard and white, like a watermelon rind all the way to the centre, and it's filled with hundreds of hard red seeds. It has no flavour, very little sweetness, and doubtful nutritional value. Yet it was widely grown by farm families and gardeners in the 1800s and early 1900s, all across Canada.

Why would someone want a melon that has to be opened with an axe and chopped into pieces, which have to be boiled to become edible, and then flavoured and sweetened with sugar? That's what I wondered when I first grew it about 20 years ago. I had read historical accounts of farmers growing this melon by the ton, and seed vendors supplying seeds to rural communities a century ago, so I thought I'd be in for a treat when it ripened. Instead I could hardly cut this melon open and when I did I couldn't eat it.

After a little more reading I found an answer. Citrons were a preserving melon, not meant for fresh eating. The melons were chopped into pieces and cooked in sugar to make candied fruit (such as for fruitcake), or boiled down to make marmalade and other sweet preserves. Since the flesh of the citron has no colour or flavour of its own, it could be combined with other fruit to "extend" them, making more jam, pies, and preserves.

Still, it seemed like an odd crop to grow in such huge quantities. A clearer answer came much later. I wanted the melons to soften, so I could get the seeds out more easily, so I put some in a corner of my kitchen. Soon, I thought, they would become over-ripe, and I would be able to cut them without a saw. Ten months later they began to get a little soft, and they were still perfectly good to eat, even after all that time.

That's the real value of citron melons: they keep for nearly a year with no special storage, which means a rural family could depend on them for winter food (with some boiling and sugar), and they could be processed into sweet desserts at any time of year when there was less outdoor work to do. Combined with the fact that the plants require very little care, and can yield a decent crop in poor soil, citron melons were a very practical source of useful but low-quality fruit for farm families and rural communities in that were challenged by local food self-sufficiency.

Why are these melons almost unknown now? The reason can be deduced from historical seed catalogues. Throughout the period of about 1910 to 1950, whenever imported winter fruit and reliable refrigeration arrived in a region, the local seed companies tended to drop citron melon seeds from their catalogues. That tells us that local demand for citrons declined as soon as they were no longer needed, which implies that people didn't really like them, but used them because they were practical and necessary.

Nevertheless, lots of gardeners still grow citron melons for interest. They are a very easy plant to grow, and they do make excellent marmalade and candied fruit. It's also fun to show your friends a melon that you harvested ten months ago!

 

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Bob Wildfong is Seeds of Diversity's executive director

 

Photo:  Kazvorpal at the English language Wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Back to May 2017 Newsletter

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