A Short History of the Seedless Watermelon
See something unusual about the watermelon in this picture? That’s right, it has seeds, unlike the watermelon you see in most grocery stores.
It wasn’t always that way. When I was a child, the watermelon my parents picked up at the store or farm stand was always full of tiny black seeds, and there was a certain joy that came from eating them outside in the hot summer sun, letting the cold juice run down our chins as we spit them as far as we could. Would they sprout right there on the lawn, we wondered? Would they spawn a whole field of watermelon that we could maybe sell or at least have our fill of anytime we wished? It never did happen, but it was fun speculation.
Seedless watermelon was an idea that was slow to catch on, but once it did, no one ever seemed to look back.
It all started in the 1940’s with a man by the name of Orie “O.J.” Eigsti, a plant geneticist from Goshen, Indiana. Professor Eigsti developed a process whereby he could grow fruit that was basically infertile, producing no viable seeds. For years, he struggled to market the idea, but had little success until the 1980’s when the Sun Corporation began to market them to grocery chains and saw huge success.
In today’s era of pervasive anti-GMO (genetically modified organism) sentiment, there has been some debate about whether seedless watermelon is in fact genetically engineered. But the National Watermelon Board, which represents more than 1,500 American growers and distributors, maintains seedless watermelon is not genetically modified, but a product of hybridization.
According to the Watermelon Board, there are more than 300 varieties cultivated in the United States, and seedless cultivars, a result of crossing round and oblong watermelon types, are by far the most popular. There are watermelons large and small, and watermelons that are classic red but also orange and yellow, which the board says are generally sweeter. And, the board says, while seedless types initially were less sweet than their seed laden predecessors, further hybridization has improved their taste.
For both commercial and home growers, seedless watermelon is a little more labor intensive than the seeded kind. Johnny’s Seeds, in Maine, which sells both diploid (seeded) and triploid (seedless) watermelon seeds instructs that the seedless types must be germinated inside under strict light, heat and moisture conditions, and require a pollinator watermelon to set fruits. Instructions and pollinator seed, according to the company’s website, accompany all seedless watermelon seed orders.
While consumers, chefs and others may prefer the ease and convenience of seedless watermelon, the classic watermelon with red flesh and black seeds can still be found with a little bit of effort. I found this variety, which I think was grown from Johnny’s ‘Sugar Baby” seed, at a local farmer’s market.
As they say, it was like riding a bike: You never forget how. My skills still sharp, I was able to spit a mouthful of watermelon seeds, oh, about 10 feet or so. Not bad. Not bad at all.