In the fervor of June, heirloom watermelon varieties flourish in backyard gardens and family-run microfarms throughout the American South. Their scarlet-colored flesh, stippled with black seeds, is a striking relic of summers past in comparison with the seedless supermarket varieties.
“I don’t believe in seedless watermelon — that is against my religion,” said Gabrielle E.W. Carter, a multimedia artist and gardener in Apex, N.C. The presence of ebony kernels is equivalent to winning a free ticket from a lottery scratch-off; it’s a modest thrill.
All season long, you’ll find watermelon eating in its purest form — palms clenching the rinds over gingham tablecloths; all pleasure and no tropes — at family reunions, at get-togethers on terraces and around patio fire pits. Consuming the fruit is a sacrament of an American summer, and, for many Black Americans, a must for Juneteenth, the Texas-born holiday gaining national recognition that’s celebrated with red punch, strawberry spoon cake and dry-rubbed ribs.
Indigenous to the African continent, watermelons are kin to cucumbers, pumpkins and loofah. Over the past 50 years, the black-seeded varieties — prized by watermelon lovers — slowly vanished from produce aisles. Many of today’s commercial watermelons, which consumers can find piled Jenga-style in oversized cardboard boxes outside of grocery stores, are seedless, the result of cross-pollination (not genetic modification). Some of these watermelons may have translucent, edible immature seeds or “coats.”
Fans eager for seed-studded sugar baby watermelons, a deep green icebox type, or oblong Charleston grays monitor neighborhood associations’ Facebook groups for sightings of the “melon man,” who, like Santa Claus, can be all places at once, his truck packed with heirloom varieties from South Carolina and Florida.
“Summer is bare feet in the grass, spitting watermelon seeds left and right, and volunteer plants coming up,” said Ms. Carter, who lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., before returning to eastern North Carolina, where she grew up, in 2018.
“There would be yards with patches of big watermelon leaves and vines spread out,” she recalled. “I remember seeing car tires and vines flowing over containers.”
Ms. Carter, 31, is the co-founder of Tall Grass Food Box, a company dedicated to increasing the visibility of Black farmers using community-supported agriculture-style produce boxes. In 1955, her maternal great-grandfather acquired a little more than three acres of land in Apex; he ran a juke joint before building his home, a structure that weaves together her people’s story of tenant farming, entrepreneurship and homeownership.
A filmmaker by trade, she is the fourth generation to make a life — and to tend herbs, okra, squash, peas, peppers and melons — on family land. Her showstopping, lustrous heirloom watermelons spread joy throughout an entire community.
Her uncle, Andrew Lee, 77, is her “dirt and till” guiding light; they both make an appearance in Netflix’s “High on the Hog,” a four-part series focused on the history of African American foodways and celebration, which was released last month. With her uncle’s confidence and approval, her first watermelon yield in 2018 afforded Ms. Carter enough fruit for bartering, gifting and experimenting in panzanella salads.
“My grandmother grew watermelons on the hill on the corner of this house,” she said. This season, Ms. Carter planted jubilee and Georgia rattlesnake varieties on the same incline, near the rose bushes, which she plans to harvest in July. Until then, she’ll buy seeded watermelons from a South Carolina melon man.
Some 330 miles south on Interstate 85, you can find another coveted heirloom melon — moon and stars, a speckled variety with red or yellow flesh that can weigh up to 30 pounds at maturity. “We stick with smaller, more personal watermelons,” said Sydney Buffington, who runs Ladybird Farm with her husband, Derek Pope, in Hull, Ga. On two acres, the couple cultivates organic strawberries, tomatoes, edible flowers and melons for restaurants in nearby Athens, Ga., the local farmers’ market and a community-supported agriculture program. Sandwiched between their living quarters and a modest wooden-framed rental property are tidy rows dedicated to the summer must-have.
Their customers often ask if the watermelons contain seeds and how to determine one’s ripeness. The organic seedless watermelon seeds are expensive, Ms. Buffington said. The appearance of a light blonde sun mark (or pinpricks on the sunspot of a moon and stars melon) and the browning of the curly tendrils at the melon’s stem are cues to begin the harvesting process.
“You leave melons where they lie; don’t pick them up, don’t rotate them,” Mr. Pope said. “The same spot that is on the ground always has to be on the ground.”
He is a melon whisperer, no thumping, with a cranium-to-sphere connection to the fruit. When asked how the farmers consume the first watermelon of the season, Ms. Buffington and Mr. Pope said, almost in unison, “right in the field.” Using a pocketknife, they split open and carve out the flesh. Everyone has a ritual when faced with the endorphin-rushing visuals of a perfectly ripe fruit, the scent of natural sugars wafting about.
“My grandfather loves salt on his melons,” said Ms. Carter, of Tall Grass Food Box. “I like cold or room temperature watermelon with no salt.”
She recalled the smiles her fruit has generated on her journey toward self-taught master gardener, a moment that connected nostalgia to the present.