Cantaloupe: A Fascinating History Lesson!

If CIA agents were to launch their Great Cantaloupe Investigation, they would quickly unveil the mystery: a cantaloupe is not really a cantaloupe. Muskmelons have been masquerading as cantaloupes in the United States for many years.  True cantaloupes are not netted, have deep grooves, a hard warty rind, and orange or green flesh. These are grown only in Europe where the population easily makes the distinction between muskmelons and cantaloupes. Muskmelons that most Americans call cantaloupes have a distinct netted or webbed rind.


Food historians have been befuddled when it comes to determining the exact origin of the melon. Some say it was in Persia that the melon was first eaten; others say Afghanistan while still other historians pinpoint Armenia. Cantaloupes were cultivated in Egypt and across to Iran and Northwest India dating as far back to Biblical times, about 2400 BCE. Egyptian paintings dating back to that period include fruits that are identified as melons. In the ancient world no distinction was made between melons that were netted, such as the cantaloupe, or non-netted, as in the honeydew.  When Moses led the Hebrew people into the desert where they wandered for 40 years, one of the foods they craved was melons, possibly a variety of cantaloupe. In Numbers 11:5 the Hebrews remembered, “the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons.”

In the Gilgamesh, a Sumerian epic completed about 2000 BCE, the hero, a Babylonian king named for the poem, ate “cassia melons,” a name indicating the fruit had a spicy aromatic flavor. The Assyrians were well acquainted with melons. They grew them in the garden of King Merodach-Baladan. In the city of Ur a resident named Ur-Nammu planted them in his garden as well. The fruits are depicted on the festive tables of several Assyrian bas reliefs, though it is unclear whether they are cantaloupes. Melons are also listed in an Assyrian Herbal.

A Middle Eastern proverb states, “He who fills his stomach with melons is like he who fills it with light–there is baraka (a blessing) in them.”

All throughout the Middle East, dried and roasted melon seeds have long been a favorite snack. Between 200 to100 BCE, even the Chinese royalty were enjoying melon seeds. In a more recent archeological site discovered in 1973, a perfectly preserved female body was found in the province of Hunan in a nested coffin that was buried sixty feet deep. Melon seeds were found in her esophagus, stomach, and intestines. The woman was identified as the wife of the Marquis of Tai during the Han dynasty, pinpointing the date at about 125 BCE.  In the first century CE, Pliny, The Elder, a Roman naturalist and writer, wrote about a plant called melopepo that grows on a vine that does not hang like the cucumber, but rather lies on the ground. He describes its fruit as spherical and yellowish and even notes that it detaches easily from the stem–all qualities that describe the cantaloupe.

At the foot of Mt. Vesuvius in ancient Sicily a wall painting depicting melons cut in half was discovered in the city Herculaneum. This city, close to Pompeii, was buried in a volcanic eruption in 79 CE but many treasures were found practically unharmed.Galen, a second century Greek physician, discusses the medical benefits of melons in his writings.  About the third century CE, the Romans were importing their melons from Armenia. These were not the large, weighty melons we know today, rather they were about the size of oranges. Some people were also growing the melons, since there were Roman manuals that gave specific directions on their cultivation.  Apicius, Ancient Rome’s first cookbook author, included melons in his Imperial cuisine. These were eaten raw, while gourds, also considered melons, were cooked.

Charlemagne was one who appreciated new fruits and vegetables and continually added new cultivars to his garden. About 800 CE, melons were a new addition to his royal gardens. He probably discovered them in Spain where they were planted a century before by the Moors. In spite of Charlemagne’s love of this fruit, melons didn’t become popular in France until much later.  En route to China, sometime around 1254 to 1324 CE, Marco Polo traveled to the city of Shibarghan in Afghanistan. There he found what he considered “the best melons in the world in very great quantity which they dry in this manner: they cut them all around in slices like strips of leather, then put them in the sun to dry, when they become sweeter than honey. And you must know that they are an article of commerce and find a ready sale through all the country around.” Albertus Magnus, European writer of thirteenth century, clearly describes the watermelon and the pepo, a term used by Europeans to refer to the cantaloupe.

When the Roman Empire collapsed, Italy no longer received shipments of melons from Asia Minor. Historians tell us it wasn’t until about the fourteenth century that melons returned to Italy, still in their orange-size portions. At that point the Italians took their cultivation seriously, and melons began to expand in size and weight.

During the fifteenth century, cantaloupes were growing in popularity in the southern part of Spain. Melon seeds were brought in by the Arabs who settled in Andalusia. From there they were introduced to the New World on Columbus’s second voyage in 1493 when he took melon seeds to Haiti. One of his journal entries dated 1494, records that he found cantaloupes growing in the Galapagos from a planting only two months prior.

The Indians of Central and South America were delighted to discover a new fruit and eagerly adopted cantaloupes into their cultivated gardens.  By the1600′s cataloupes were grown in North America from Florida to New England, but the melons did not attain popular acceptance until the 19th century. It was not until after the Civil War, which ended in 1865, that cantaloupes became a major crop in United States.

Sometime during the sixteenth century, melon seeds from Armenia were planted in the Papal gardens of Cantaloupo, a city near Tivoli close to Rome. According to historians, cantaloupes acquired their name here where this species was first grown in Europe.

In the seventeenth century, melons were becoming a popular fruit in France and Italy, but could only be grown in the southern regions, and then only under glass to capture enough warmth for them to mature. At that time the French were referring to melons as “sucrins,” meaning sugar. Charles Estienne, printer and publisher, reveals the secret of success to growing sweet melons. He says, “gardeners watered them with honeyed or sweetened water.” Even Jean de la Quintinie, gardener to Louis XIV, planted seven varieties of melons under glass.  In the mid1800′s Navahos in the United States Southwest were growing cantaloupes whose seeds probably arrived via Latin America. On a trip to Armenia some time during the1900′s, British novelist Michael Arlen learned it was the Armenians who introduced the casaba melon into California. That variety of melon acquired its name from the city of Kasaba, in Turkey, where it was also cultivated.

On France’s 1881 official records, the Netted Gem, our familiar cantaloupe, was first exported to the United States. It wasn’t until 1895 that commercial production of the cantaloupe actually began, surprisingly, in the state of Colorado. We can also thank the French for the bringing us the honeydew melon about 1900, a variety they called White Antibes winter melon.

The French had much to say about melons. One poet said, “There are three things which cannot support mediocrity, poetry, wine, and melons.” Claude Mermet, a French writer of the 1600′s expressed an expectation of mediocrity in melons when considering them as friends. He wrote, “fifty had to be tried to find a single good one.” When Mermet’s thoughts were translated into English, it became a rhyming jingle: Friends are like melons. Shall I tell you why. To find one good, you must a hundred try. Another French writer, Brillat-Savarin, took offense at that little poem, defending melons by expressing that good ones were the rule, bad ones the exception. He did explain that melons must be eaten at the exact moment when they had attained “the perfection which is their destiny.”

Today, cantaloupes grown in California come from one of two regions: the Imperial Valley and the San Joaquin Valley. In the Imperial Valley, a more desert-like area, the melons are planted in December through March. In the San Joaquin Valley, in Central California, plantings begin in February and continue through July. Between these two areas, local cantaloupes are available from May through October.

Cantaloupes in Many Cultures

In the United States, cantaloupes are eaten uncooked, often as dessert or as part of a fruit cup presented as an appetizer. In the Orient, melons are commonly cooked and eaten as vegetables; however, these are not the sweet varieties familiar to cantaloupe and honeydew fanciers. The Chekiang melon is one variety grown from Thailand to Southeast China. Pickled, this melon keeps for several months and serves as a tasty condiment.  Dried melon seeds are a common snack in Central and South America, China, as well as the Middle East from Iran to Egypt.

One of Apicius’s recipes describes raw melons served with a sauce of “pepper, pennyroyal, honey or condensed must, broth and vinegar. Once in a while one adds silphium.” Silphium is possibly asafoetida, an herb used in the cuisine of India. Some people sprinkle their cantaloupes with salt and pepper, others add a dash of powdered ginger. Citrus lovers feel that a sprinkle of lemon or lime juice adds a definitive enhancement to the cantaloupe.

Medicinal Benefits

Medieval alchemists claimed that melons “promoted blood moderately, and suited phlegmatic and bilious temperaments.” It was said that they relieved “the pain of calculi and cleansed the skin, but caused flux from the belly which could be treated with syrup of vinegar.”

A Chinese herbal claims that sweet melons cool fevers, moisten the lungs, and benefit the urine. In addition, the seeds will clear phlegm and benefit the intestines. Sweet melons are also prescribed to relieve tuberculosis cough, and constipation. For a toothache caused by wind and heat, take six grams of melon skin, add water and steam till cooked. When cool, use as a mouth rinse.

Cantaloupes may be helpful to people with heart disease because they contain an anticoagulant called adenosine. With their very high beta carotene content, cantaloupes rank high as an anticarcinogenic food. Abundant in potassium, cantaloupes may be beneficial for those with high blood pressure. Because of their high water content, they serve as a diuretic.


The term muskmelon crops up often when referring to cantaloupes. Historically, the cantaloupes grown in the United States were called muskmelons. However, today, growers in the U.S. use both words interchangeably. Cantaloupes are the melons that mature in late spring and early summer and are netted with green and yellow rinds. Late summer maturing, specialty melons referred to as winter melons, include casaba, crenshaw, Christmas, and canary varieties.

Naming the Cantaloupe

The scientific name for cantaloupe is Cucumis melo with seven different botanical variations. The Reticulatus variation is our familiar cantaloupe. Others in the cantaloupe group are the Galia, Persian, and Charentais. Cantaloupensis, the true cantaloupe, has a completely different appearance and is only grown in Europe. Cucumis melo var inodoras referred to as Winter Melons, are those that mature in late summer. These include casaba, crenshaw, Christmas, canary and honeydew melons.

Cantaloupes are also members of the Curcurbit (Curcurbitaceae) family that includes watermelons, squashes, pumpkins, gourds, and cucumbers. The curcurbit family members can readily cross-pollinate with other varieties of that same family, so farmers are careful to keep them apart. To explain, if you have planted two varieties of cucumbers close together, bees may carry pollen from one to the other. You won’t see anything unique in that planting season. However, if you save the seeds from those plants and plant them the following year, you may discover a strange looking cucumber or two.

Cantaloupes, called vine crops, thrive in hot and even humid regions. Since they are heat loving, you can imagine they are very frost sensitive. Most melons are annuals, though a few are perennials

Botanically, the melon family is a pepo, a more European term, with many variations on a theme. The salad members of this family include cucumbers. Cooking members include pumpkins and squashes. Dessert members include watermelon, muskmelons, honeydews, and cantaloupes.

Our familiar cantaloupe, or muskmelon, was developed by W. Altee Burpee Company in 1881. Because of its very netted rind, the cantaloupe earned the variety name of Netted Gem. Today, California grows 70% of the U.S. muskmelon crop, with Texas and Arizona second and third in production.

Muskmelons produce two kinds of flowers, “perfect flowers” that have both male and female parts, and staminate flowers that have only male parts. The vines produce large, attractive flowers that last only one day.  Pollination by bees is a must for fruit to set. Most melon growers will have one or two honeybee hives per acre next to melon fields for ideal melon production.

Early plantings are best grown on well-drained sandy loam or silt loam soil with a more alkaline ph, about 6.0 to 6.5 because these soils warm more quickly. During the main growing season, loam and loam clay soils are preferred because they hold moisture longer, allowing for a longer growing season. More acidic soil produces weaker plants with fewer melons. Harvesting of cantaloupes is mostly done by hand beginning in May. Nature has created the perfect built-in system of determining when the melons are just ripe for picking. When the sugar content reaches its peak, a buffer layer develops between the stem and the melon, forming a shield that prevents more nutrients from entering the melon. Only those that separate easily from the vine with light pressure are considered mature. The peak season is June through August.  Cantaloupes are considered quite perishable. Once the melons are picked, growers quickly cool them through forced-air cooling or a hydrocooling system, from 50 degrees F (10 degrees C) to 39.2 degrees F (4 degrees C) until they are transported by truck to local markets or across the United States and Canada. A small number of these melons travel across the Pacific to Asian markets.

Now wasn’t that fascinating?  Compliments of

You may also like:

Where’s my Cantaloupe?

Eat Your Cantaloupe and Live Your Life

Where’s my Cantaloupe? Redux

© Copyright 2011  Allison Stuart Kaplan LLC

Be Sociable, Share!

Related posts:

Love this post? Buy us a coffee to celebrate!


  1. I was looking for a prescription site when I came across your post in a google search. I agree you with your post completely. Couldn’t of said it better myself.

  2. That is some inspirational stuff. Never knew that opinions could be this varied. Thanks for all the enthusiasm to offer such helpful information here.

  3. Great site and nice text.

  4. I am researching Maitland, Florida, for an art show I am planning, and it was originally known as: Fumecheliga, or musk melon, as named by the seminole indians. You don’t list Florida as a grower, so I can only assume the fruit didn’t thrive in the area. Do you have any information on muskmelons in Florida?

Speak Your Mind