What were watermelons like 350 years ago?

Look in the right corner of this picture. If you’ve never seen watermelons like this before, you’re not alone. This painting is by Giovanni Stanca, who lived in the 17th century. Thanks to the artist, our contemporaries can see what watermelons looked like back then.

The painting, created between 1645 and 1672, convincingly illustrates the power of selection to change the plant forever. James Niinhuis, professor in the Department of Plant Science at the University of Wisconsin, uses it in his lectures on the history of breeding.

“It’s fun to go to art galleries and look at extant works that depict fruits and vegetables that people consumed 500 years ago,” he says. – Most of the time it just gives you a glimpse into the past, because we can’t keep crops for centuries.”

Watermelons originally grew in Africa, but when people began to cultivate the crop, the area of distribution expanded to the Middle East and southern Europe. The appearance of the berry in European gardens and markets occurred roughly in the noughties of the 17th century.

The fruits of Stanka’s time probably did not taste bad – the professor suggests a fairly high sugar content, since watermelons were consumed fresh and often used to make wine. Still, their appearance was very different from today’s.

Over time, mankind has developed watermelons with bright red flesh. The white areas in the flesh of the fruit depicted are nothing more than the placenta holding the seeds together. During the process of breeding, the lycopene content in it increased, giving it a red color. It took us hundreds of years to get larger watermelons rich in lycopene.

Of course, this is not all that mankind wanted from the berry. Our contemporaries are now trying to get rid of the seeds, which Professor Niinhuis calls “a logical continuation of domestication. At least future generations will have pictures where they can see watermelons with seeds.