Plant Palette

Plant Palette

Cantaloupe or muskmelon?

Photo of Jennifer Schultz Nelson

Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
jaschult@illinois.edu

One of the great joys of summer has to be fresh cantaloupe, either from the local farmer's market or your own home garden. But is it cantaloupe or muskmelon? There is technically a difference, but often the names are used interchangeably.

The term cantaloupe refers to two varieties of muskmelon. What we typically call a cantaloupe is Cucumis melo reticulatus, also called the North American cantaloupe. The variety name reticulatus refers to the net-like appearance of the skin, also called reticulated. The other variety, European cantaloupe, Cucumis melo cantalupensis, has ribbed light green skin and looks nothing like what we commonly call cantaloupe.

While both of these cantaloupe varieties are muskmelons, not all muskmelons are cantaloupes. The name muskmelon comes from the sweet fragrance of the ripe fruit. The term musk comes from a Persian word for perfume, and melon is a French word derived from the Latin melopepo, which means "apple-shaped melon". There are many different types of muskmelons, with a wide variety of shapes, sizes, flesh color and flavor.

Muskmelons, including cantaloupe are native to Persia, which is present-day Iran. The oldest pictoral record of muskmelon appears to be in an Egyptian illustration dating back to 2400 B.C. Historical records give indications that the Greeks grew muskmelon back in 300 B.C. Cultivation of muskmelon spread slowly westward, and by the late 15th century, Christopher Columbus carried muskmelon seeds with him on one of his voyages to the New World.

Muskmelons caught on relatively slowly in history. Some historians argue that this was because of inconsistent results with the quality of the crop. While genetics contributes its fair share to a melon's quality, the environment it grows and develops in influences the final product to a great extent as well.

The issue of fruit quality is still an issue today. How many of us have commented that a particular melon was 'good' or 'bad'? If you have grown your own melons, you've probably experienced good and bad quality melons from the same vine. Why is this?

Several environmental factors potentially contribute to a melon's flavor. While water is essential for plant growth and development, too much will dilute the sugars and dull the flavor of a nearly ripe muskmelon. Diseases that stunt the growth of the vines lessen the capacity of the plant to produce sugars via photosynthesis. This too translates to a potentially poor quality fruit.

An 'old wives' tale' still floating around out there is that poor melon quality is related to cross-pollination with other members of the muskmelon family, the curcurbits. This family includes cucumbers, squash, watermelon and pumpkin. While in theory these family members can cross, it is unlikely to happen at random. Even if it did, the results would not show up until the seeds of the melon produced were grown.

The flesh of the melons we consume originate entirely from the genetics of the plant growing that year. The genetics of any cross-pollination are housed in each seed inside of the melon, only to be revealed if you grow the seeds out next year.

Another problem that early cultivators of muskmelon probably experienced at one time or another is vines that grow prolifically, but bear no fruit. I have had that happen more than once–tons of vines and flowers but no melons.

Muskmelons, like the other curcubits, produces separate male and female flowers. A unique feature is they also have some flowers with both male and female parts. But they still rely on bees to do the pollinating for them. If there are not enough bees, the female flowers won't be pollinated, and no fruit will form.

Often if the muskmelon vines are fertilized with too much nitrogen, or during the heat of the summer, plants will produce only male flowers. There is absolutely no way to produce fruit in this situation! Watering thoroughly to try and wash away some of the excess nitrogen may work to some extent, but if the problem is high temperatures, you will just have to hope for cooler weather.

Vines that are too crowded may also fail to produce fruit. Plant vines where they are free to roam, at least six feet apart.

The best conditions to grow muskmelon in are full sun, well-drained soil. Plants or seeds should be put out after all danger of frost is past, and the soil is at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Well-drained or even sandy soil is a must, as standing water in a melon patch tends to breed disease.

Most sources recommend using mulch, either black plastic sheeting or organic mulches to conserve moisture for plant growth and to protect the developing fruits from too much moisture, which can cause rots to develop. Mulch also helps keep soil moisture levels constant, which reduces the likelihood of the fruits developing blossom end rot.

Whether you grow your own or buy muskmelon at store or farmer's market, how do you know what a ripe one looks like? For cantaloupes, the skin beneath the netted parts typically appears creamy beige. But for all muskmelons, cantaloupes included, the vine will naturally slip from the fruit when it is ready to harvest. If you find melons for sale that have little stubs of vine sticking out of them, they were harvested too early and probably won't be very sweet.

Despite the sometimes finicky nature of muskmelons, I will always continue to grow my own. Some years they're great and other years they're a bust. But they're always fun to grow. And I know if I don't get at least a melon or two from my own garden, there will be some at farmer's market.

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