Often disregarded in comparison to the more popularized watermelon, the North American Cantaloupe— also known as a muskmelon—with its moderately sweet orange flesh, is a summer must in your fruit salad. Don’t be fooled by its funky appearance: it’s the perfect accompaniment to both sweet and savory meals and snacks!
Read on to learn more about the North American Cantaloupe: what it is, where it came from, how to grow it, where to find it, and most importantly, how to eat it!
Before we dive into the specifics of the North American Cantaloupe, it’s important to get a couple of things straight about cantaloupes in general. Cantaloupes are called different things around the world. Some call it sweet melon, people in Australia and New Zealand call it a a rock melon, and in South Africa it’s known as spanspek. Though they all use different names, they are all muskmelons of the Cucumis melo species, in the Cucurbitaceae family. They are closely related to squash, pumpkin, zucchini, and its popular cousin, the watermelon.
All cantaloupes (and sweet melons and rock melons, etc.) are muskmelons, but not all muskmelons are cantaloupes. For example, honeydews and Armenian cucumbers are muskmelons, but they are not cantaloupes.
There are two different types of cantaloupes: the North American Cantaloupe (Cucumis melo reticulatus), and the European Cantaloupe (Cucumis melo cantalupensis). Some people claim that only the European Cantaloupe is truly a cantaloupe, and that the North American Cantaloupe is just a muskmelon, but we’ll leave the arguing to the experts, and for the sake of this article, continue to consider the North American Cantaloupe just that: a cantaloupe!
After all, though the two cantaloupes look a little different, their nutritional content, health benefits, taste, and smell are similar.
The North American Cantaloupe
The North American Cantaloupe’s Latin name is Cucumis melo reticulatus: reticulatus meaning reticulated, likely inspired by the rough, net-like raised exterior of the fruit’s rind. Its outer shell is a little softer than the European Cantaloupe, but still hard to the touch. In fact, the name rock melon was inspired by the rind’s rock-like appearance. As the fruit ages, the raised netting becomes more prominent, and the color of the rind beneath goes from green to a pale yellow-ish color.
The flesh inside is orange and juicy. The fruit grows an oblong length of 6 to 10 inches, though they are usually more rounded than watermelons. They are found throughout North America, including Mexico and Canada.
History of the North American Cantaloupe
The origin of the cantaloupe is contested, and experts say that the fruit probably originated somewhere between South Asia and Africa. The word cantaloupe comes from the 18th century French word cantaloup, referring to the Papal residence in the Italian region of Cantalupo, near Rome. The cantaloupe came to Italy via Armenia, and we first find it mentioned in English literature in the first half of the eighteenth century.
It is believed that Christopher Columbus brought cantaloupes to North America on his second voyage to the “New World” in 1494, but the fruit that would become the North American Cantaloupe wasn’t commercialized in America until the 1890s.
The word melon comes from the old French thirteenth century word meloun and the medieval Latin word melonem, which was a kind of pumpkin.
Eating the North American Cantaloupe
Both the North American Cantaloupe and the European Cantaloupe have a variety of health benefits. They are rich in vitamin C, vitamin A, potassium, folate, and polyphenol antioxidants, which support the cardiovascular and immune system. Because the fruit is 90% water, it’s also a light and healthy snack!
Cooking with the North American Cantaloupe
All types of cantaloupes are normally cut up and eaten fresh—in fact, you can usually find them in fruit salads. They also go well as garnishing for ice cream, custard, cakes, and yogurt.
As mentioned earlier, cantaloupe also pairs great with savory foods. Prosciutto e melone (prosciutto-wrapped melon) is a popular Italian antipasto that has slowly made its way over the Atlantic. It might sound like a strange combination, but we promise you it’s worth it. Don’t hate it ’til you make it!
Did you know that the seeds are also edible? You can dry them up, and snack on them as you would with sunflower seeds.
We advise you, however, to wash and scrub the watermelon’s rind thoroughly before cutting into it. The surface could carry harmful bacteria like Salmonella. Once its been cut, the fruit should be refrigerated and eaten within three days.
We’ve also found this Rock Melon Cantaloupe Syrup that can be used in cold drinks like cocktails, iced teas, lemonades, and soda.
How to Grow the North American Cantaloupe
As long as you can ensure enough warmth, planting, growing, and caring for your North American Cantaloupe isn’t difficult at all. You can plant its seeds either indoors or outdoors.
Soil / Planting
You should prepare the soil by tilling it, and making sure it has good drainage. Some gardeners like to add good manure or nutrient-rich soil—you can even conduct a soil test to reach the perfect pH level for a cantaloupe of 6 to 6.5. You should then use your finger to make small holes eighteen to twenty-four inches apart, and add two to three seeds per hole.
You should place the seeds with the pointy side down, because that’s where the roots emerge. The plant will most likely find its way towards the sun anyways, but why not make it easier for them? Pinch the soil back over the seeds, and water them gently. The spot you pick should be very sunny—cantaloupes need eight to ten hours of direct sun a day! Make sure the spot is just right, because Cantaloupe plants don’t love to be transplanted.
Temperature / Cold Protection
If you live in a cold region, you’ll have to find a way to cover your cantaloupes to keep them warm. You’re also advised to plant them in raised beds and containers outdoors, since those often thaw earlier.
Alternatively, you can get a head start by planting them indoors about four weeks before the last frost of the season. The reason for this is that most cantaloupes have a long growing season (germination to maturity takes two to three months!), so you want to make sure the plant has enough time to grow, and the fruit enough time to ripen, before the weather turns cold again.
People in warm areas, however, might be able to plant and grow the North American Cantaloupe even in the fall. It all depends on how warm it is! Just make sure it doesn’t get too hot—your plant might start to suffer if temperatures rise above ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit for more than a couple of days in a row. For those of you in hotter climates, you can plant your North American Cantaloupe seeds outdoors as soon as the last frost (if any!) is behind you, when the soil is consistently around seventy degrees Fahrenheit.
To help with temperature control, mulch with straw or light-colored material to protect the roots during heat waves, and use black landscaping fabric or dark-colored bark chips to retain warmth in colder climates. You can also use gardening hoops or floating row covers to protect against the cold, but these should be removed as soon as possible (and definitely as soon as the plant starts to flower) to allow access to bees and other much needed pollinators!
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the temperature, but another important aspect is how often to water your North American Cantaloupe. Gardeners suggest one to two inches of water a week until it starts to produce fruit, after which you should decrease the watering to half an inch until a week before harvesting the cantaloupe. To ensure the biggest fruit, you should trim the plant to two-to-three melons; if you don’t do so, the plant will grow many small cantaloupes.
Picking Your North American Cantaloupe
The North American Cantaloupe harvesting season varies by geographic location. You’ll know its the right time to pick your North American Cantaloupe when you can smell a musky sweet fragrance from the side of the fruit that attaches to the stem. If you don’t smell anything, it’s likely the cantaloupe won’t taste like anything, either—a good tip to keep in mind when you’re buying Cantaloupes from a grocery store!
Buying the North American Cantaloupe Plant or Seeds
Buying the Fruit
If you’d prefer to skip the growing and go straight to the eating, rest assured that North American Cantaloupes are easy to find in grocery stores throughout the summer. A fun fact is that in 2013, the US produced over 900,000 tons of cantaloupes! Most are cultivated in hot states including California, Arizona, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Florida.
Last Thoughts on the North American Cantaloupe
Though the origin and nomenclature of the North American Cantaloupe might be a bit complicated, you don’t have to get lost in its history to enjoy the fruit’s orange sweetness and reap its health benefits. This underrated summer favorite is sure to put a smile on your face whether you’re eating it as-is, or with your favorite ice cream.
Excited for more cantaloupe content? Then check out my cantaloupe page for growing tips, info guides, recipes, and more!