The still life you see above was painted by Italian artist Giovanni Stanchi sometime between 1645 and 1672. It features a variety of fruits, including peaches, plums and pears, but take note of the odd-looking specimen in the bottom right. Yep, that’s a watermelon. Or at least what a watermelon looked like 350 years ago.
So how did the watermelon go from something that resembled a giant pomegranate to the succulent, red, juicy fruit we know and love today? The answer lies in breeding.
Paintings like Stanchi’s are fascinating because they provide a glimpse not only of the styles and attitudes of life centuries ago, but they also allow us to see how other things — like the watermelon — have changed so dramatically over the years.
That change, as I mentioned, is due to centuries of careful breeding (which occurs in everything from fruits and vegetables to dogs and cats), designed to accentuate the best qualities of a particular item and minimize the not-so-good ones.
Although the watermelon certainly looked quite different in the 17th century, the taste probably wasn’t far off from its modern day variety. It was likely sweet, and the white part you see in the image above was, indeed, edible. The red part of a watermelon, which holds the seeds, is actually the watermelon’s placenta. Over the years, growers have bred watermelons with more red flesh (which is also the part that’s loaded with lycopene), to yield melons with more red flesh, more juice and even fewer seeds.
“Museum paintings are an interesting method for studying old cultivars [varieties],” said Todd Wehner, a professor at North Carolina State University who studies watermelon breeding. “The one (in Stanchi’s painting) certainly shows the sort of watermelons that Europeans had to eat in the Middle Ages during their summer harvest season.”
So what will watermelons look like three centuries from today? Honestly, probably not that different from the ones we enjoy today I like to think watermelons of the future will be available in various flavors like bacon, chocolate and bubble gum, but that dream is still 70 or 80 years away.
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