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Watermelon (Citrullus sp.or Cucumis melo), a tropical fruit, belongs to the family Cucurbitaceae. The flesh is in shades of either red or yellow. Popular for their taste, the plant has been in cultivation in Malaya since the 1940s.
Origins and distribution
Watermelon is believed to have originated in the Kalahari desert, Africa and the fruit first cultivated in Egypt. From there it was introduced to the Mediterranean then brought to India, probably in prehistoric times. It came to China via India, where its introduction is estimated at between the 10th to 12th century AD. From China, it spread to Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands and the tropics of Australia. The subtropics of Japan, Taiwan and Florida, USA offer conducive climatic conditions for the vine to grow. The fruit is classified as a vegetable in Taiwan and Thailand.
In Malaya, watermelon was first planted in Kelantan in the 1940s. The fruit however became popular and widely grown only from the 1970s onwards after a much sweeter hybrid was introduced into Malaysia from Taiwan and Japan. A common pest of the plant, Bactrocera cucurbitaea, was fought using a parasite discovered for the first time in Singapore. Many related varieties of watermelons are found throughout Southeast Asia that are either local varieties of a particular region or are hybrids popularly grown there. The local varieties in Indonesia are Bajonegoro and Sangkaling and hybrids grown there are Tomato, Sugar, Cream Suika, Sugar Baby and Charleston Gray. In Malaysia, the varieties grown are Black boy, Empire No. 2, Crimson sweet, Seedless Variety, Fengshan No 1, Flower Dragon, New Dragon, Yellow Baby, Sugar baby and New Sugar Baby. Thailand varieties are similar to those of Malaysia, but the fruits there are bigger and sweeter. The main producers of watermelon in the world are Italy, Turkey, United States, China and Russia.
The watermelon vine is a hairy, trailing annual vine that can grow up to six metres long. Its stems are rough and angular and its roots shallow and widespread. The leaves of this vine are large and hairy. They are divided into rounded lobes and have a long stalk. The tendrils, the leaf petioles, and the flowers appear around the same area on the stem. The male flowers appear earlier than female flowers. The male flowers are large, yellow and have an attractive corolla with stems located at its base. The male flowers are produced atop the female flowers which have a large green hairy ovary attached to a fruit stalk. Sometimes hermaphrodite flowers are also seen. The large watermelon fruit is produced either with or without seeds. The outer layer or the skin is thick and smooth, light green to dark green with stripes. The edible flesh enclosed is composed of more than 90% water. Watermelons can weigh up to seven kilograms. Citrullus lanatus is the water melon species with yellow flesh, while Cucumis melo has red flesh. Both species however, sometimes have flesh in either shades of red, yellow or white. Citrullus vulgarisis is another popular species of water melon and is used interchangeably with Citrullus lanatus or Cucumis melo.
Usage and potential
Watermelons are usually eaten fresh. They can be made into fresh juice or packed in tins. Watermelon juice, believed to have cooling properties, and is thus a popular drink. However, it is the seeds that have popular local use not often found in the West. The seeds of some varieties of watermelon are dried and salted to make a tasty snack known locally as kuaci. Southern Chinese roast and eat the red variety of seeds. The seeds are rich in carbohydrate, fat and protein. They consist of 30% edible oil. Seeds of different varieties of water melon differ in their chemical composition. Some seeds contain a resin and sugar while other seeds contain alcohol called cucurbitol. In Africa, the oil of the seeds is used for cooking and is cheaper than groundnut oil. Cakes left after oil extraction is used as cattle feed. The fruit is sometimes eaten cooked by the Chinese. The Indians also pound the seeds and eat them in cakes.
The Chinese use the flower stems for general indigestion while the Indochinese used it to treat vomiting. In India, the kernels of the seeds are used as a diuretic, body coolant and for strengthening purposes. The juice of the watermelon roots is used to stop haemorrhage after abortion. The Malays and the Javanese believed it was dangerous to eat watermelon fruit with palm-sugar or honey.
Common name: Watermelon.
Scientific name: Citrullus lanatus, Citrullus vulgarisis, Cucumis melo.
Malay names: Tembikai, Melikai, Timun Cina, Semangka.
Naidu Ratnala Thulaja
Burkill, I. H. (1993). A dictionary of the economic products of the Malay Peninsula (pp. 567-568, 706-707). Kuala Lumpur: Ministry of Agriculture and Co-operatives.
(Call no.: RSING 634.909595 BUR)
Othman Yaacob & Subhadrabandhu, S. (1995). The production of economic fruits in south-east Asia (pp. 214-219). New York: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: R 634.0959 OTH)
Watermelon. (1993). Asian Pacific Panorama, 2, 222-225.
(Call no.: RCLOS 950 APP)
Fruit technology, Watermelon (Citrullus lanatus), Department of Agriculture, Malaysia. Retrieved February 27, 2003, from agrolink.moa.my/doa/BI/Croptech/watermelon.html
Watermelon.org. (2001). National Watermelon Promotion Board. Retrieved February 27, 2003, from
The information in this article is valid as at 1999 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history on the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.