The Art of Resurrecting Heirloom Watermelons


It was hot in Louisiana, and after 15 hours in the cars and truck to arrive from Virginia, Joshua Fitzwater and Debra Freeman entered the heat and humidity that prevails in the neighborhood of Calhoun.

They had actually come all that method to locate a watermelon that couple of individuals had actually found out about and even less have in fact tasted. The Red-N-Sweet was the last watermelon produced by the Calhoun Research Station in 1987. The station shuttered completely in 2011, and numerous seeds were lost– possibly permanently. Kerry Heafner, a Louisiana State University associate extension representative in gardening, had actually had the ability to locate a few of them, like the Red-N-Sweet. This melon is a deep, dark red, and it’s exceptionally sweet.

” The minute I tasted that watermelon I resembled, holy crap, this is the best-tasting treasure I’ve ever had,” states Fitzwater.

In 2019, Fitzwater and Freeman would drive countless miles on a mission to discover the rarest, most fascinating watermelons that no longer exist in the higher industrial market. Along the method, they tasted and photographed melons, collecting the seeds to conserve and plant. Fitzwater and Freeman, both expert writers, likewise vigilantly gathered the history and context surrounding each kind of seed they discovered.

” You’re touching that history, and in such a way, maintaining that history by conserving these uncommon treasure watermelons,” states Fitzwater.

Cross cut of a 18 pound Florida Favorite heirloom watermelon grown in 2023 by the Fitzwaters.

Crosscut of an 18-pound Florida Favorite treasure watermelon grown in 2023 by the Fitzwaters. (Photography thanks to Joshua Fitzwater)

As the creator of Southern Grit publication, Fitzwater remained in a special position to facilitate this type of job. He had comprehensive contacts in both the farming and cooking markets throughout the area. This made it simpler to disperse seeds into the hands of ready growers and to link treasure watermelons with innovative chefs, bartenders and makers. In doing so, they are assisting to pull these uncommon melons back from the edge of oblivion and onto individuals’s plates.

” As we lose these, we lose taste and we lose history,” states Fitzwater. “It’s a double loss.”

‘ Bit by the watermelon bug’

To date, Fitzwater has actually tasted upwards of 40 treasure watermelons, however his interest in uncommon varietals started more normally. Fitzwater began Southern Grit in 2014, and started diving deep into the history of particular treasure crops particular to the area such as Silver Queen corn and Hanover tomatoes. It was the watermelon that got him and would not let go. It began when he discovered the Moon and Stars watermelon and was stunned to discover that the withins were orange however not red.

” I was type of struck by it,” states Fitzwater. “I believe that was the point when I was bit by the watermelon bug, so to speak.”

Meanwhile, Freeman, who is an author, food anthropologist and the developer and host of the Setting the Table podcast, which checks out Black foodways, had actually read up about the Bradford watermelon. It’s an unique treasure grown by the Bradford household out in Sumter, South Carolina. The set chose they would make a trip out there to attempt it in 2019. This journey was among numerous that year.

” We’re increasing and down the Eastern Seaboard, essentially every weekend, attempting to hunt these things down,” states Freeman.

Collage of images from Freeman and Fitzwater's search for heirloom watermelons.

Starting in 2019, Freeman and Fitzwater would drive to Louisiana, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Maryland, Delaware and West Virginia looking for the very best treasure watermelons and conserving seeds. (Collage thanks to Joshua Fitzwater)

Two years later on, their journeys took them down to Louisiana. Fitzwater had actually become aware of Heafner online, due to the fact that Heafner was on something of a mission himself. He was gathering treasure seeds of all kinds from throughout Louisiana.

For Heafner, his connection with the Red-N-Sweet began when he lectured to the Marion Garden Club in northern Louisiana.

” A woman approached me and stated, ‘I have something you may be thinking about,'” states Heafner. The female, Lula Shurtleff, informed him she had some watermelon seeds that she believed were from the Calhoun Research Station. She ‘d been keeping them in her freezer for many years.

Heafner accepted the seeds, sprouted and grew them, which’s how the Red-N-Sweet watermelon resurfaced. Heafner now runs the North Louisiana Seed Preservation Program with his coworker Marcie Wilson, and he states that he frequently gets gotten in touch with by individuals who have actually conserved seeds or have actually been growing a special range of something in their households for generations, consisting of apples, peas, eggplants and more. The objective of this job is to make these almost lost seeds readily available to growers once again.

Left: Kerry Heafner and watermelons. Right: Seeds in a jar.

Left: Kerry Heafner, Louisiana State University associate extension representative in gardening. : Saved seed from the Red-N-Sweet watermelon Heafner talented Joshua Fitzwater in 2021. (Photography thanks to Joshua Fitzwater)

” You simply never ever understand what somebody has actually stashed in their freezer,” states Heafner.

Collecting and conserving these seeds is not simply a method to protect hereditary variety however likewise the cooking and farming history of the area, states Heafner. A number of the commonly readily available industrial watermelons today are reproduced for characteristics that make them able to endure cross-country transportation.

Tasting a treasure melon suggests re-establishing the connection with the grower, which Freeman states has actually mostly been lost from American culture. The Red-N-Sweet, for instance, is now back in the hands of some little growers in Louisiana and beyond.

” It clearly develops a local color for them,” states Freeman. “I believe it provides a much deeper connection to where they live.”

Tony’s watermelons

To in fact grow the watermelons, Fitzwater employed the aid of his daddy. As it ends up, Anthony “Tony” Fitzwater has rather the propensity for growing watermelons.

According to Joshua Fitzwater, his daddy is effectively growing a few of the rarest watermelons in the nation. And these treasure watermelons can be “skittish.” They take a great deal of cautious tracking and care to keep them on track.

That initially growing year, he and his daddy were out in the spot numerous times each week, states Fitzwater. “I needed to drive like an hour every day to arrive– he needed to drive even further.”

Left: Joshua Fitzwater. Right: Anthony Fitzwater.

Left: Joshua Fitzwater holding 2 25+ pound Florida Favorite treasure watermelons grown for seed in Halifax, Virginia in Summer 2023. : Anthony “Tony” Fitzwater holding a 30-pound treasure Red-N-Sweet watermelon he and his child grew in Halifax, Virginia in 2022 for seed. (Photography thanks to Joshua Fitzwater)

Most days in the spot, the daddy and child operated in heat over 90 degrees, discovering what worked finest.

” I believe it has actually brought them more detailed together since that’s something that they were dealing with in tandem,” states Freeman.

The effort settled– Tony blazed a trail to harvest after harvest. Now, thanks to Shurtleff, Heafner, Freeman and the Fizwaters, the Red-N-Sweet, which had all however vanished, is being cultivated by little growers in California, Virginia, Louisiana and beyond. Fitzwater approximates that they’ve put the seeds of the Red-N-Sweet into the hands of 1,000 growers throughout the nation. They duplicated this procedure with the Florida Favorite, a watermelon that had actually vanished from the industrial market. After getting 10 seeds from the USDA, the Fitzwaters had the ability to sprout 6 and grow them in the summer season of 2023. This year, they’ll have the ability to reestablish the seeds from their harvest to the general public.

Around Halifax County, individuals begin to acknowledge Tony as the watermelon guy, states Fitzwater.

” None of this would have been possible without Kerry Heafner, without the farmers in Louisiana and without my daddy.”

Watermelon on the rocks

In addition to getting treasure seeds into the hands of growers, Fitzwater has actually likewise been getting melons into the general public eye by getting in touch with the regional cooking scene. Josh Seaburg is a bartender in Virginia who has actually assisted develop and perform several mixed drink programs in the location. It was too great of a chance to pass up when he heard about Fitzwater’s treasure watermelons. Seaburg connected to let Fitzwater understand he would have an interest in including these melons into a mixed drink menu. The very first treasure that Fitzwater brought Seaburg to attempt was the Bradford.

” I keep in mind simply being definitely flabbergasted with just how much various it was than a supermarket melon,” states Seaburg. “[I] ended up being type of consumed with the taste of it.”

One of the watermelons Seaburg got was the Red-N-Sweet, and for the dining establishment Crudo Nudo in Norfolk, he developed a pale pink, carbonated, bottled mixed drink out of it by juicing the melon, sugarcoating and acid and blending it with Singani, a Bolivian spirit.

There’s a novelty in getting to deal with such a special food product, states Seaburg. “I likewise value the trust that Fitz has in the collaboration, understanding that these uncommon melons remain in safe hands and going to be become something scrumptious and fascinating.”

Brûléed Red-n-Sweet heirloom watermelon paired with preserved kumquat, snap peas, watermelon rind amba, formosa, sun tea vinaigrette, celery leaves by Chef Leah Branch at the Roosevelt in Richmond, Virginia.

Brûléed Red-N-Sweet treasure watermelon coupled with maintained kumquat, snap peas, watermelon skin amba, formosa, sun tea vinaigrette, celery leaves by Chef Leah Branch at The Roosevelt in Richmond, Virginia. (Photography thanks to Joshua Fitzwater)

More than a melon

Food is a natural adapter, states Freeman. And when you inform the story of a watermelon, it’s not actually about the melon itself however individuals who developed and cultivated it.

” I simply believe it’s so unique to find out these stories and individuals linked to them due to the fact that every among these watermelons was grown for a particular factor,” states Freeman.

It’s not almost taste, states Fitzwater, however likewise the history. Take Odell’s White Watermelon, which was established in South Carolina by an enslaved guy called Harry. It was called after a subsequent grower, not the guy who in fact reproduced it. This big melon with rose-colored flesh and pale green skin is cataloged in the Slow Food Ark of Taste, a company that assists accentuate endangered and unique foods. Today, the seeds are offered by business such as Truelove Seeds and Sistah Seeds.

” How do you discuss watermelons without speaking about Africa?” states Fitzwater. “How do you discuss watermelons without speaking about the wide variety of enslaved growers that were associated with this procedure?”

Both Fitzwater and Freeman have actually blogged about the context behind a few of these watermelons.

” When you cut into a watermelon, it’s a lot more than cutting into a watermelon,” states Fitzwater. “You’re cutting into somebody’s labor, somebody’s mind, somebody’s previous errors. And then lastly they got it. It’s so a lot more linked to life.”

The next watermelon

What began as an eccentric, individual job for the Fitzwaters and Freeman resulted in something much larger– bring back public access to uncommon watermelons. In spite of the grand arc that this job has actually taken, Freeman likewise explains that this is something anybody can do. With a bit of legwork, anybody can locate something and get in touch with it themselves.

” I believe they will discover a psychological connection that they didn’t anticipate,” states Freeman.

The Fitzwaters have actually had 5 plantings given that they started this experience in 2019, and they prepare to continue this work– growing melons, distributing seeds, instilling them into the cooking scene, and naturally, ferreting out the next evasive watermelon. Next stop: Alabama looking for the Duke Jones watermelon. He’ll bring it back and he and Tony will plant it out next summer season if Joshua can discover it.

” I’ve seen rumblings of it online,” states Fitzwater. “But it’s not commercially readily available.”


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