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Medieval emergence of sweet melons, Cucumis melo (Cucurbitaceae)

Medieval emergence of sweet melons, Cucumis melo (Cucurbitaceae)

Medieval emergence of sweet melons, Cucumis melo (Cucurbitaceae)

By Harry S. Paris, Zohar Amar and Efraim Lev

Annals of Botany, Vol.110:1 (2012)

Background: Sweet melons, Cucumis melo, are a widely grown and highly prized crop. While melons were familiar in antiquity, they were grown mostly for use of the young fruits, which are similar in appearance and taste to cucumbers, C. sativus. The time and place of emergence of sweet melons is obscure, but they are generally thought to have reached Europe from the east near the end of the 15th century. The objective of the present work was to determine where and when truly sweet melons were first developed.

Methods: Given their large size and sweetness, melons are often confounded with watermelons, Citrullus lanatus, so a list was prepared of the characteristics distinguishing between them. An extensive search of literature from the Roman and medieval periods was conducted and the findings were considered in their context against this list and particularly in regard to the use of the word ‘melon’ and of adjectives for sweetness and colour.

Findings: Medieval lexicographies and an illustrated Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ herbal suggest that sweet melons were present in Central Asia in the mid-9th century. A travelogue description indicates the presence of sweet melons in Khorasan and Persia by the mid-10th century. Agricultural literature from Andalusia documents the growing of sweet melons, evidently casabas (Inodorous Group), there by the second half of the 11th century, which probably arrived from Central Asia as a consequence of Islamic conquest, trade and agricultural development. Climate and geopolitical boundaries were the likely causes of the delay in the spread of sweet melons into the rest of Europe.


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