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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.

Then there are the hybrid cultivars, whose DNA is such a mishmash that it’s not worth trying to fix a botanical name to them. They include superior varieties, such as the superb Charentais, Bailan, Crane, Hami, Montreal, Sprite, Sugar and the impossibly expensive Yubari King.

If you ever wondered what the insanely wealthy spend their money on, consider that a perfect Yubari King melon, grown in a very limited region of Japan and certainly an excellent, sweet, fragrant melon, goes for about 10 grand each.

Our own Crane melons — as wonderfully delicious as any melon on earth — is only grown in a blessed spot of Sonoma County, but you can pick one up for a pittance compared to a Yubari King.

You’ll have to wait until September, though. I’ll keep you posted.

Here’s one of the most refreshing thirst-quenchers of all for the hot summer months. Adults can enjoy it as a nonalcoholic drink or give it a kick with rum or vodka, and the kids will love it straight.

Watermelon Lime Agua Fresca

Makes 4 servings

2 cups cold water

1/2 cup sugar

1 bunch spearmint

4 cups seedless watermelon, cut into ½-inch squares

— Juice of two limes, plus extra slices for garnish

Combine one cup of the water, the sugar and the spearmint in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, stir to dissolve sugar, and remove from heat and let steep for 10 minutes.

Pour the mint syrup into a blender, add the watermelon, the second cup of water and the lime juice.

Puree the contents of the blender and then strain through a strainer to remove the pulp. Refrigerate for one hour, then serve over ice in individual glasses garnished with lime slices.

Jeff Cox is a food and garden writer based in Kenwood. Reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net