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Saving The Sweetest Watermelon The South Has Ever Known

Saving The Sweetest Watermelon The South Has Ever Known The Salt NPR

Saving The Sweetest Watermelon The South Has Ever Known The Salt NPR


The most luscious watermelon the Deep South has ever produced was once so coveted, 19th-century growers used poison or electrocuting wires to thwart potential thieves, or simply stood guard with guns in the thick of night. The legendary Bradford was delectable — but the melon didn't ship well, and it all but disappeared by the 1920s. Now, eight generations later, a great-great-great-grandson of its creator is bringing it back.

The story of the Bradford begins on a prison ship during the American Revolutionary War. It was 1783, and the British had captured an American soldier named John Franklin Lawson and shipped him off to the West Indies to be imprisoned. Aboard the prison ship, the Scottish captain gave Lawson a wedge of watermelon that was so succulent, he saved every seed. When he got home to Georgia, Lawson planted the seeds and grew a popular watermelon. Around 1840, Nathaniel Napoleon Bradford of Sumter County, S.C., crossed the Lawson with the Mountain Sweet. By the 1860s, the Bradford watermelon was the most important late-season melon in the South.

But the oblong, soft-skinned Bradford was never suited to stacking and long-distance shipping. In 1922, the last commercial crop was planted, and the melon wholly gave way to varieties with tough rinds. For the rest of the century, the Bradford survived only because family members went on planting it in their backyards and saving seeds — making sure to plant it at least a mile from any other melon, so that it wouldn't cross-pollinate and lose its purity.The Bradford boasted fragrant red flesh, pearly seeds, and a rind so soft you could slice it with a butter knife. The fruit was more than just a savory summer treat — its sweet juice was routinely boiled into molasses or distilled into brandy for cocktails garnished with fruit and syrup, and the smooth soft rinds were pickled. Home cooks often turned to watermelon molasses to preserve fresh fruit for the winter.

Meanwhile, around 2005, David Shields, a professor at the University of South Carolina, began hunting without much hope for a surviving Bradford melon. Shields is author of Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine, and his current mission is to restore antebellum cultivars and foodways. He'd been researching important melons of the 19th century, and concluded the precious melon was extinct. Says Shields: "I checked germ plasm banks, seed saver's exchanges, read original seed catalogues from the 1800s, and wrote watermelon growers in the boondocks rumored to have old melons. They tended to have old bad melons, though. I almost lost hope."

That all changed on Oct. 31, 2012, when Shields woke up to an email from Nat Bradford, a landscape architect in Sumter, S.C., inquiring if his family's backyard melon was the famous Bradford.

"My family has been maintaining this watermelon in a little field in Sumter, S.C. for well nigh onto 100 years that I know for sure," wrote Bradford. Shields' heart leapt. Not only was it the Bradford – Shields now knew it could be revived.

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Very cool story, now I want to grow an heirloom watermelon!

Check out this heirloom watermelon pic stashed in 2012:

Heirloom Watermelons - PandaWhale


It's beautiful.

Ever eaten one?

No, but if I had access to them I wouldn't stop with one.  :)

Luckily we can keep growing more. :)

This watermelon is grown without irrigation! It can withstand drought conditions, even in sub-Saharan Africa. It would be amazing to cut a slice for some kids there...

It's amazeballs that this one family had their own watermelon that they kept growing and eating for a hundred years after it fell out of fashion. Sounds like they didn't even really know it was a famous watermelon! It was just their thing. I guess that's the good part about the South, huh?

Yes, that's the good part about the South. But you're right that it's pretty amazing.

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