What better way to cool down on a hot summer day than with a watermelon? The sweet, red middle inside the crunchy green rind has been enjoyed by people all over the world for thousands of years.
The watermelon is both a fruit and a vegetable. It's part of the cucurbitaceae plant family of gourds, which also includes cucumbers, pumpkins, and squash.
Some think watermelon originated in the Kalahari Desert of Africa. But the earliest evidence of the fruit is found in hieroglyphics found on the walls of Egyptian ruins, more than 5,000 years old.
By the 10th century, watermelon had found its way to China, which is now the world's No. 1 producer of the fruit. It also is grown in the United States, mostly in warm-climate states such as California, Texas, and Florida.
Farmers generally grow the fruit in rows, eight to 12 feet apart. Baby watermelons are usually planted in raised beds of soil.
In a month, a watermelon vine may spread to as much as six to eight feet. Bees must pollinate the yellow watermelon blossom for a fruit to form. In two months, the vine shows its first watermelons, and the crop is ready to harvest within three months.
The rind of the fruit is not as tough as it looks, so in most parts of the world, watermelon still is picked by hand. Pickers look for a pale or buttery yellow spot on the bottom, one of the indications of ripeness.
After picking, watermelons keep best at room temperature. Cold temperatures, such as those found in a refrigerator, can make a watermelon lose its flavor and become pithy after a few days. Freezing causes a mealy, mushy texture.
Watermelons are 92 percent water. Some early explorers used hollowed-out watermelon rinds as water canteens on long journeys. There even was a recipe for pickled watermelon rind in one of the first Colonial cookbooks, published in 1776.
The largest recorded watermelon was harvested in Hope, Ark., last September, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. It weighed in at a whopping 268.8 pounds. Now that's one huge, sweet treat.
Source: National Watermelon Promotion Board, www.watermelon.org.