Quick — what’s the difference between a cantaloupe and a muskmelon?
The answer is not much, or somewhat, or a great deal, depending on which melon you’re talking about. That’s because all cantaloupes are muskmelons, but not all muskmelons are cantaloupes.
Welcome to the wonderful world of sweet summer melons, where cross-breeding has been going on for so many decades now that the DNA is all mixed up. But we’re going to try to set that straight, now that high melon season is coming upon us locally.
You may say to yourself, “Hey, we have Crane melons. You can only get ’em here, they’re wonderful, so why look any farther?”
Unfortunately, it’s not time yet for our local jewel of sweet melons. The Cranes come in around Sept. 1, so keep reading because I’ll be writing about the Cranes as their time approaches.
In the meantime, California produces many other kinds of sweet melons, which are beginning to show up in our stores and in a few precocious farmers markets. Up until now, bringing home a melon was usually an exercise in frustration, as they looked good but weren’t particularly sweet or flavorful — except for watermelons.
But that changes at this time of year, when California-grown melons have finally soaked up enough heat and sunshine to get sweet and fragrantly ripe. As with so many of our food crops, California is a paradise for melons.
Melon growers know they need lots of heat and sunshine.
Young plants do not like to be moved, and so seed is ordinarily sown directly in the ground. They like a smooth, even start, with no setbacks as a result of cold snaps or drought periods. They like their roots irrigated, not their leaves and stems. When the vegetative parts get wet, they’re prone to fungi that clog the plumbing carrying sweet sap from the leaves to the fruits, so you get nice-looking, bad-tasting melons.
As you can see, California’s climate is ideal: lots of steady heat and sunshine, no rain this time of year.
So let’s look at our commercially available melons to see what’s what and who’s who.
We’ll need to use botanical names, so bear with me.
Muskmelons are all genus Cucumis, species melo. They include fragrant, yellow-fleshed cantaloupes, some smooth-skinned, and some reticulated — that is, covered with a grey, raised netting on the rind.
A subset of muskmelons is Cucumis melo “Inodorus Group,” with white to green sweet flesh that has a hint of cucumber, and that includes the canary melon, honeydew, Persian (the oddity of the group with orange flesh), Casaba and Piel de Sapo (also known as the Santa Claus melon since late-picked melons may last in storage until Christmas). Somewhere along the line, someone crossed a Persian melon with a Casaba, and lo and behold: the excellent, sweet, spicy Crenshaw melon with creamiscle-colored flesh was born.
If you’re wondering, Galia with light green flesh and Korean melons with white sweet flesh are both Cucumis melo, while the Horned melon (aka jelly melon) is Cucumis metuliferous, and the seldom-seen Paddy melon is Cucumis myricarpus. Watermelons are a genus and species of their own: Citrullus lanatus.