Medieval iconography of watermelons in Mediterranean Europe

Medieval iconography of watermelons in Mediterranean Europe

By Harry S. Paris, Marie-Christine Daunay, and Jules Janick

Annals of Botany, Vol. 112:5 (2013)

Image of watermelon from the Tractatus de herbis, British Library ms. Egerton 747, which was produced in southern Italy, around the year 1300
Image of watermelon from the Tractatus de herbis, British Library ms. Egerton 747, which was produced in southern Italy, around the year 1300

Background and Aims: The watermelon, Citrullus lanatus (Cucurbitaceae), is an important fruit vegetable in the warmer regions of the world. Watermelons were illustrated in Mediterranean Antiquity, but not as frequently as some other cucurbits. Little is known concerning the watermelons of Mediterranean Europe during medieval times. With the objective of obtaining an improved understanding of watermelon history and diversity in this region, medieval drawings purportedly of watermelons were collected, examined and compared for originality, detail and accuracy.

Findings: The oldest manuscript found that contains an accurate, informative image of watermelon is the Tractatus de herbis, British Library ms. Egerton 747, which was produced in southern Italy, around the year 1300. A dozen more original illustrations were found, most of them from Italy, produced during the ensuing two centuries that can be positively identified as watermelon. In most herbal-type manuscripts, the foliage is depicted realistically, the plants shown as having long internodes, alternate leaves with pinnatifid leaf laminae, and the fruits are small, round and striped. The manuscript that contains the most detailed and accurate image of watermelon is the Carrara Herbal, British Library ms. Egerton 2020. In the agriculture-based manuscripts, the foliage, if depicted, is not accurate, but variation in the size, shape and coloration of the fruits is evident. Both red-flesh and white-flesh watermelons are illustrated, corresponding to the typical sweet dessert watermelons so common today and the insipid citron watermelons, respectively. The variation in watermelon fruit size, shape and coloration depicted in the illustrations indicates that at least six cultivars of watermelon are represented, three of which probably had red, sweet flesh and three of which appear to have been citrons. Evidently, citron watermelons were more common in Mediterranean Europe in the past than they are today.

Introduction: The watermelon, Citrullus lanatus (Thunb.) Matsum. & Nakai (Cucurbitaceae), is an important vegetable crop in the warmer regions of the world. Watermelon plants are annual, multiple-branched, procumbent tendril-bearing vines with extensive root systems. They require much space, fertile ground and a long, sunny growing season to mature their fruits. As is typical for cucurbits, the internodes are long and the leaves are distributed alternately on the stems. Watermelons are readily distinguished from most other cucurbits by the pinnatifid shape of their leaf laminae. Somewhat elongate and slightly folded adaxially along the central vein, the leaf laminae are supported by slender, stiff petioles that are not as long as the laminae and usually curved near their juncture with the stems. From these junctures, referred to as leaf axils, tendrils, flowers and fruits develop. The tendrils, which anchor the plants to nearby objects, are branched and can become highly coiled. The flowers of watermelon plants are solitary, 2–3 cm in diameter, with five light yellow petals. Watermelon plants typically are monoecious, most of the flowers are staminate and generally a pistillate flower occurs at every seventh or eighth leaf axil. The flowers open in the early morning and are functional until mid-afternoon, when they begin to wither; they do not re-open. Pollination is effected by bees. The ovaries and young fruits are lanate. The fruits become less hairy as they grow and, typically, they are harvested when fully mature, a month or more after anthesis, at which time they are glabrous and smooth. Fruit size can vary from 1 to 100 kg, but most commercially available watermelons range from 3 to 13 kg.

Click here to read this article from National Center for Biotechnology Information

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