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Lo and Behold!

Periodical enquiries, facts, and problems regarding antiquarianism, the history of science, etymology, palæography, and other sublunary affairs.

Muskmelons and Pumpions

George Orwell, in his newspaper column of 3rd November 1944, asks about melons. “To the lovers of useless knowledge (and I know there are a lot of them, from the number of letters I always get when I raise any question of this kind) I present a curious little problem arising out of the recent Pelican, Shakespeare’s England. A writer named Fynes Morrison, touring England in 1607, describes melons as growing freely. Andrew Marvell, in a very well-known poem written about fifty years later, also refers to melons. Both references make it appear that the melons grew in the open, and indeed they must have done so if they grew at all. The hot-bed was a recent invention in 1600, and glass-houses, if they existed, must have been a very great rarity. I imagine it would be quite impossible to grow a melon in the open in England nowadays. They are hard enough to grow under glass, whence their price. Fynes Morrison also speaks of grapes growing in large enough quantities to make wine. Is it possible that our climate has changed radically in the last three hundred years? Or was the so-called melon actually a pumpkin?”

This problem is difficult to solve since there was much taxonomical confusion surrounding melons in the 17th century. At least it was the last century that botanists would have to suffer without Linnaeus, who gave the melon its scientific name, Cucumis melo, in 1753. The Cucumis melo at the time that Fynes Morrison wrote was called a muskmelon, and was thought to be related to the cucumber: “doubtless the Muske-Melon is a Kinde of Cucumber”, writes John Gerard in his 1596 New Herball. This bemuddlefraught conviction may be due to the Serpent Melon, a true melon which nevertheless tastes somewhat like a cucumber. The myth that the melon is a kind of cucumber persisted until the 18th century.

So if you told someone in 1600 that you’d grown a melon, what would they picture? Most likely, a pumpkin. J.C. Loudon, in the Encyclopædia of Gardening (1824, 2nd ed.) III, says that the “pumpkin, pumpion, or more correctly, pompion” was the “melon or millon of our early horticulturists, the true melon being formerly distinguished by the name of musk-melon.” In other words Orwell is right that the pumpkin was called a melon in the early 17th century, but this isn’t the end of the story. Here’s the exact quote referred to from Morrison’s Itinerary, Book III, Chapter 3, pp.146–7: “By reason of this temper, Lawrell and Rosemary flourish all Winter, especially in the Southerne parts, and in Summer time England yeelds Abricots plentifull, Muske melons in good quantity, and Figges in some places, all which ripen well, and happily imitate the taste and goodnesse of the same fruites in Italy.”

Morrison mentions the muskmelon (modern melon), not the melon (modern pumpkin). Unfortunately, as this passage demonstrates, if the Itinerary were to be considered a biography of England it would actually be best considered a hagiography as Morrison is trying to extoll the virtue of England over the continent; but nonetheless, his readers would have known whether or not muskmelons grew in England, so we needn’t entirely doubt the facts.

Nor does Morrison say that grapes grow, exactly, but that they did formerly grow, in Gloustershire. And grapes can still be grown in England: there were 350 vineyards in the United Kingdom in 2005, according to the English Wine Producers. The most representative vineyard minimum in England and Wales was when a mere eight were recorded in the 19th century.

In any case, the modern melon was definitely grown in some capacity in England in the early 16th century. The early 20th century botanist Edward L. Sturtevant refers to George Don who wrote that the melon “has been cultivated in England since 1570, but the precice time of its introduction is unknown. It was originally brought to this country from Jamaica, and was, till within the last fifty years, called the musk-melon. The fruit, to be grown to perfection, requires the aid of artificial heat and glass throughout every stage of its culture.” This is from Volume 3 of Don’s General System of Gardening and Botany (1831–8), which ran to four volumes overall but was never completed. The work was later renamed A General History of the Dichlamydeous Plants: dichlamydeous (‘two cloaks’) refers to those flowers which have a calyx and corolla, both of the floral envelopes. A typographical error in the scanned PDF of Sturtevant that I used gives the word as the thetamesised ‘dichladymeous’.

So has the climate changed in three-hundred years, as Orwell posits? Don says that a melon may germinate at 65°F (18°C) but requires 75–80°F (24–27°C) and four months to ripen. This is not entirely unreasonable in contemporary England, and appears not to have been unreasonable in the 17th century, perhaps even without coldframes. It’s true that the Little Ice Age is said to have come to a climax around the time of Morrison’s travels: the Thames first froze over in 1607, and Hendrick Avercamp painted his famous A Scene On the Ice the next year in Holland. But, counterintuitively, the summers were often as hot as the winters cold. Indeed the summer of 1607 was an especially hot, dry summer in London and the south of England.

The art of growing melons was probably in a primitive state anyway. A manuscript from 1525 owned by Thomas Fromond and called Herbys necessary for a gardyn by letter lists the melon, so they existed in England before Don’s 1570 estimate. John Tradescant the Elder was covering melons with “earthen pans” in Canterbury in 1612. The first recorded mention of a hotbed was in 1626 by Sir Francis Bacon, and in 1687 G. T. Scott mentions “melon frames” specifically. Yet in Acetaria (1699), the diarist John Evelyn says of the melon to “Note, That this Fruit was very rarely cultivated in England, so as to bring it to Maturity, till Sir Geo. Gardner came out of Spain. I my self remembring, when an ordinary Melon would have been sold for five or six Shillings.” And since both he and Scott apparently refer to the modern melon, perhaps ‘musk-melon’ fell out of use earlier than is supposed.

by Sean B. Palmer, 2007-04-09

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© 2007 Sean B. Palmer, inamidst.com