You may have seen large and small varieties of watermelons at your local supermarket, featuring not only deep coral-colored fruit, but varying hues of orange, yellow and white, with rinds having the typical wavy green stripes, or oddly, solid colors like light or dark green, orange, black or even gray.
Even more eye-catching, watermelons appear to come in much smaller sizes, although there’s a special type that might make you wonder if it’s a combination of fruit and vegetable in one, a variety known as a cucamelon, with the botanical name Melothria scabra,1 originally grown in Mexico and South America.
There are dozens of cucumber cultivars which range from burpless to seedless, with pickling or raw slicing varieties, spiny or smooth skins, long, thin English cucumbers and the heirloom “straight 8,” developed to resist disease and bitterness, but cucamelons aren’t like any of them. Cucamelons aren’t even related to cucumbers, but there are a few similarities, and they have a similar flavor.
For adventurous gardeners who love trying new plants, cute little cucamelons are no larger than a grape when it’s ready for harvest. Sliced in half, lengthwise, you’ll find two sections with seeds and a texture similar to that of a cucumber with a thin skin. There’s no need to peel them.
Like other fruits and veggies, this one has alternate monikers, including mouse melon, Mexican sour gherkins or sandita, which translates to “little watermelon” in Spanish. As for whether cucamelons purchased in supermarkets are genetically engineered, Homestead and Prepper notes:
“That is a difficult one to say for sure, but according to several articles on the web, the plants are not GMO. They are actually native to Central America where they are quite common. They are served as a delicacy in the region. The fruits were part of the Aztec community’s diet, but have remained fairly secret until recently. They are not a hybrid.”2
As one might expect, cucamelons come with a unique nutritional profile, which one study3 found is high in antioxidants, flavonoids and phenolic compounds. Researchers showed they contain a “significant amount of almost all essential amino acids and important minerals,” making them a “valuable nutraceutical supplement.”
Ways to enjoy your ‘adorable’ cucamelons
One of the best ways to describe how cucamelons grow in the garden is the word “abundance,” which is true even if you plant them in large pots on your patio or deck. Like many other types of garden produce, as you experiment with the flavor and texture of cucamelons, you’ll find several ways to serve them.
The taste of cucamelons has been described as tangy, rather like a cucumber doused in lime juice, or a citrusy, savory fruit, which makes them a great addition to salsa. Pickling them is another popular preparation. Mint is one direction you can take the flavor, or try snipped dill weed to make a pickle preparation that’s tasty on sandwiches.
Sliced cucamelons make a crisp, refreshing salad ingredient, or you can leave them whole, somewhat in the same way you serve grape tomatoes. In fact, many of the ways you serve tomatoes can be eaten the same way, such as tossing them with olive oil, with a few choice herbs and sliced (regular) cucumbers, peppers, onions and tomatoes.
Cucamelons are the perfect “traveling fruit,” as they can be tossed into kids’ lunch boxes, taken in a basket to family get-togethers or just enjoyed while you’re standing in your garden, so if you enjoy sharing your produce, you may have to exercise self restraint. One suggestion is to opt for a small cucamelon as a substitute for an olive in a gin and tonic.
Some tips for growing cucamelons
If you’re not sure how to grow these tasty little offerings, experts say cucamelons are cultivated in much the same way regular cucumbers are, but easier. They attract very few pests, and other than supplying trellises for the vines to grow on, (not unlike those used to grow peas, even sending out little tendrils that wrap around the trellis), you can plant the seeds and watch them grow without much intervention.
One good reason to use trellising to grow cucamelons is that otherwise, your fruits may drag on the ground and rot before you get to them, or become vulnerable to pests and disease. Without trellises, the plants will also take up a lot more garden space.
While the fruits can be expensive to buy in the store, they can be grown without much more than the price of the seeds. Seeds generally come with about 30 per packet, which experts confidently advise is “more than enough,”4 especially after the first growing season. According to Savvy Gardening:5
“The price alone makes it worth growing cucamelons for yourself. They’re an easy crop; the vines are very productive, and they’re rarely troubled by the many insects and diseases that plague cucumbers.
Impatient gardeners will find cucamelons slow to start in the garden, with growth not taking off until the summer weather heats up. That said, they will tolerate a cooler spring better than cucumbers do, and once they’re established, cucamelons are quite a bit more drought tolerant.”
Although your seeds may take up to four weeks to germinate, once they get started, you may be surprised at how prolific the vines are at producing. Attractive trailing creepers are reminiscent of grape vines, just with smaller leaves. Although the vines appear delicate, they do their job. Make sure your supports are good and sturdy, and you may want to build them bigger than you think you’ll require.
Growing cucamelons: Things to know
As with any garden crop, preparing the soil in your garden beforehand with compost and organic, seasoned manure6 is a good practice to get the most nutrition out of the fruits and vegetables you’ll eventually gather. Carefully mulching the seedlings will help keep weeds at bay and hold moisture.7
If you want a jump on the season or you live in a cold northern climate, you can start your cucamelons in seed boxes six weeks before your gardening zone’s last frost. Four-inch pots help the roots form firmly for later transplanting into the garden.8
Once outside, if a surprise cold snap sets in, you can use cloches or a covered hoop system over rows of cucamelon seedlings for frost protection. Open both ends of the tunnels during the day to allow air to circulate around the plants, then close the ends again before the evening chill arrives. Repeat as necessary until the air becomes more conducive for growing healthy produce.9
As an alternative, cucamelon seeds (which you’ll most likely need to purchase online10) can be sown directly into your garden once frost is no longer a possibility — usually in April or May.11 Just like cucumbers, find a sunny garden spot and create small mounds in the soil 8 to 12 inches across, with the mounds being about 15 inches apart.12
Place four to six seeds in a circle on the mounds.13 If possible, provide wind protection and keep the ground moist until the seedlings appear, then continue watering until the plants are well established.14 Water weekly as they grow unless the weather is unusually hot and dry, but you’ll find cucamelons to be tolerant of drought conditions. If necessary, thin the tiny seedlings not my pulling them, but with scissors.15
Keep in mind that it will take approximately 80 days for your cucamelons to reach maturity after planting your seeds,16 so even cool weather zones have plenty of time to grow without worrying about the season closing on undeveloped fruit.17 Expect your plants to reach 3 to 5 feet in height.18 Before long, you may have the experience these conscientious gardeners reported in BuzzFeed:
“We direct seeded them into well composted soil and were very careful with watering them until they got started. It took a long time to germinate but we ended up with a dozen plants or about 60% germination. Once they started they stayed tiny in the three leaf stage for a week or two. After that they exploded and quickly covered the trellis we had for them. The yields are amazing. We have picked hundred off these plants and they are tasty and fun to eat.”19
Harvest time: Sooner than you think
Believe it or not, soon after you notice the first flowers appearing on the vines, you can start looking for fully ripe cucamelons. Because as many as a dozen can fit in a man’s hand, you can grab a basket and start plucking the tiny fruits when they’re just an inch long. But just like regular cucumbers, they’re good at blending into the foliage, so lift the leaves to find fruits that may be hiding.
You may want smaller cucamelons for a few reasons: The larger they are, the more of a tendency they have to take on the citrusy flavor. When they’re left on the vine too long, they can become slightly sour. Pass the Pistil notes:
“Cucamelons are tender perennials which means, if you live in a warm climate they may continue to grow year after year from the same root stock. You can test this by insulating the area with mulch after the growing season. I’ve even heard that some gardeners remove the roots stock, placing it in a controlled environment and planting it back out in spring.”20
Homestead and Prepper says it this way:
“After the first season, you will discover your cucamelon plants produce very long, tuberous roots similar to that of a dahlia or iris. You can dig up these roots and store them in a cool, dry place over the winter. Next planting season, put the tubers in the ground. Your will get an earlier crop with twice as much fruit.”21
A bit of advice for picking your fruit is that you can do so at almost any time, but if you wait too long, they can become both seedy and firm. Until you know what to look for, try gently squeezing a few of your cucamelons to test their surface skin. You may want to save the more tender cucamelons for eating and the firmer fruits for pickling. Seeds from the fruits that have fall to the ground can be collected and saved. Here’s why:
“Just let a few fruits ripen fully on the vines, or collect any fallen fruits at the end of summer. Scoop out the seeds, which will be surrounded by a gel-like coating, and place them in a container, along with a small amount of water. Leave the mixture to ferment for 3 days (expect mold to form on the surface).
The good seeds will sink to the bottom of the container; when this happens, pour off the mold, pulp, and water. Rinse the seeds left at the bottom of the container with fresh water until clean. Spread them on paper towels or a clean dishcloth and let dry for at least a week. Store the fully dried seeds in envelopes.”22
Because cucamelons are open-pollinated, which means they can be pollinated via birds, insects, a stiff breeze blowing the seeds, or by humans, new plants will be nearly identical to the originals, aka “true to type.”23 The significance of this is that cucamelons can easily self-seed.
Luckily, you don’t have to have a green thumb to successfully grow these little fruits. As long as you follow basic rules for gardening, water them regularly and prepare the vines with sturdy trellises, you can expect a bountiful, delicious harvest.