Cantaloupe or Muskmelon
… Or both
For years I’ve delighted inbeing a know it all, happily pulling out the tale of mislabeled American melons. But, the tale isn’t entirely accurate. It is true that the fruit called a Cantaloupe in North America isn’t the same fruit called a Cantaloupe in Europe. It is not true that we in the Americas are eating mislabeled Muskmelons, since both kinds of cantaloupes are actually Muskmelons.
Muskmelon, also known as Cucumis melo, is a member of the family Cucurbitaceae, commonly named the Melon or Cucumber family. C. melo var. cantalupensis is a ribbed smooth skinned form, while C. melo var. reticulatus is the netted variety more common in the Americas and Australia (called a Rockmelon there). There are several other types of C. melo which I’ll get to a little further on.
So if we are all eating slightly different versions of the same Muskmelon where did the story about the name come from? Well the truth is slightly milder than all that. Cantalupensis was originally named for Cantalupo, Italy; however the French derivative for Cantaloupe was mostly used to refer to var. cantalupensis. While there may have been several netted or partially netted varieties of Muskmelon in Europe (Melon, Tours Sugar: Burpee’s Farm Annual 1881 Pg. 9), in the Americas the first reference to them as a distinct type that I can find is burpee’s Netted Gem listing from the 1880’s (Burpee’s Farm Annual 1881 Pg. 5). These varieties grew better in warmer climates than their smooth french cousins and the rest is brunch.
You can actually get your hands on var. cantalupensis in the US, with the “Charentais” varieties being some of the most popular. They don’t do well in especially hot climates, but should do ok in milder summers. Additionally there are quite a few hybrid types that combine both varieties.
But the story gets a little more interesting when you look at a few more C. melo varieties.
I’ve been growing Armenian Cucumbers for a couple of years now, since it will produce right through Southern California’s hot dry summers. I was really surprised to find out that Armenian Cucumbers aren’t cucumbers at all.
Armenian Cucumbers, as well as Egyptian Hairy Cucumbers, are actually another C. melo varieties, specifically Cucumis melo var. flexuosus. Its not that surprising that there are varieties of muskmelon which taste like Cucumbers since the two plants share a genus. Cucumbers are Cucumis sativus, Horned melons are Cucumis metuliferus and the Indian Gurkin is Cucumis anguria. Probably less surprisingly Honeydew and Crenshaw melons are also varieties of C. melo.
Also there are some additional “Mango” varieties that have fallen by the wayside in recent decades, but were staple pickling types in colonial America. Here’s a video going into a little more detail on that.
So its not the case that American Muskmelons are labeled Cantaloupes as a marketing gimmick. But rather that Cantaloupe is one of several cultivar groups within one of agriculture’s more diverse species. In terms of diversity of cultivated types only Wild Cabbage (Brassica oleracea: Cabbage, Kale, Broccoli, Kohlrabi, etc.) exceeds Cucumis melo.