Other than botanists, few people consider that watermelon (Citrullus lanatus) is African. Yet this is so: the crop’s wild ancestors occur abundantly in the dry zones of the continent’s southern region. The African origin may come as a surprise only because watermelon spread around the globe so long ago that for most people it has become part of the wallpaper of life.
Today, this African fruit is cultivated throughout the warmer parts of the world—from the searing tropics to temperate latitudes and even beyond.1 Global annual production is approaching 100 million tons. Yet Africa scarcely registers in statistics: the largest producers are Turkey, Iran, and Egypt, the United States and Mexico, and–especially–China, which produces over two-thirds of the watermelon in the world. While consumption in the United States has been fairly stable over the past 25 years, elsewhere demand is increasing, and indications for the future suggest ever-greater global production.
Given all this success, it is intriguing to consider that only a few watermelon types emigrated out of Africa. The descendents of those select few rose to a place among the best known of all the world’s fruits. With their colorful flesh and luscious sweet juice, they have been called the food of heaven. Mark Twain once wrote, “The true southern watermelon is a boon apart and not to be mentioned with commoner things. It is chief among this world’s luxuries, king by the grace of God over all the fruits of the earth. When one has tasted it, he knows what the angels eat. It was not a southern watermelon that Eve took; we know this because she repented.”
The homebound watermelon types that remained in southern Africa’s arid regions are not at all like that. To naive outsiders they can look like miserable waifs, fully deserving their neglect. But that impression is false. Wild watermelons are useful in their own right, and always have been, their rinds, flesh, and moisture sustaining many inhabitants through waterless times. “The most surprising plant of the South African desert,” wrote David