They’re the most ubiquitous fruits on roadside stands this summer. And with the unbearable and record heat we’re experiencing, for sure, many travelers succumb to the succulent seduction of one of the biggest fruits cultivated and consumed by mankind.
Watermelons are the perfect fruit for the summer season. Consisting of 92 percent water, sweet, and tender, it can keep you hydrated and refreshed on a hot day. It’s a favorite staple during picnics and a mainstay dessert during party gatherings. But the watermelon that we enjoy today has been the result of generations of selective breeding from its original ancestor in the wild.
The modern watermelon traces its origins to a melon that grow in the wild in the Kordofan region of Sudan in northeast Africa, according to scientists. Early watermelons were not sweet, but bitter, and were difficult to open. They were, however, cultivated and collected because of their high water content, and as a method of storing water in the dry and arid desert of northern Africa. They were stored to be eaten during the hot and dry season.
Wild watermelon seeds were discovered in a 5,000-year-old prehistoric settlement in Libya. Paintings of watermelons also appear in Egyptian tombs built more than 4,000 years ago, including in the famed tomb of King Tutankhamun. From Africa, watermelons were brought to and spread in Europe. “[I]n addition to trade and bartering, the watermelon’s territorial expansion was aided by its unique role as a natural canteen for fresh water on long voyages,” speculates horticulturist Harry Paris. By the early 7th century, watermelons were being cultivated in India, and in China by the 10th century. European colonists and African slaves introduced the watermelon in the New World, and it quickly spread throughout the Americas, including in the Pacific islands.
It is reported that China produced about two-thirds of the world’s total supply of watermelons in 2017 and most probably for the years after. In the United States, nearly 85 percent of total watermelon sales were of the seedless variety, as early as 2014. Watermelon seeds are, however, harvested, processed, and sold as a nut snack in the Philippines (butong pakwan).
The peak season of watermelon in the Philippines is during the summer months from March to June. It is planted in lowland areas, after rice harvest. Western Visayas is one of our country’s biggest producers of watermelons. The municipality of Bani in Pangasinan, dubbed as the watermelon capital of the Philippines, holds its annual Pakwan Festival every January to give thanks for bounteous harvest of watermelons and other crops.
There are more than 1,000 varieties of watermelons cultivated worldwide. The varieties that we see in the Philippines are the red and yellow ones, but there are orange, white, and pink varieties elsewhere.
Ancient Greek physicians, including Hippocrates, praised the watermelon for its many healing powers. The watermelon was “prescribed as a diuretic and as a way to treat children with heatstroke by placing the cool, wet rind on their heads.” In modern times, watermelons have been found to have “more lycopene than any other fresh fruit or vegetable … Lycopene is an antioxidant linked to decreased risk of cancer, heart disease, and age-related eye disorders,” according to the Mayo Clinic Health System.
Watermelons are used as symbols or instruments of protest (Palestine), as imagery and altar offerings during celebrations of the dead (Mexico), as gifts of luxury (Japan), as stereotype of racism (United States), and as a sexual symbol for large breasts (worldwide).
With the acquittal of Janet Lim Napoles, the burning of the Central Post Office building in Manila, the disclosure by a city mayor in a private forum that some congressmen get as much as 40 percent of bribe money in public work projects, and the criminal involvement of high ranking police officials in the biggest drug haul in the country, watermelons are just about the only positive news that can be written about in this godforsaken land. And I write about it as my way of hurling watermelons at all those involved in all these shenanigans.
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