I first learned about watermelon’s pale-fleshed, seedy ancestor while studying traditional ways of preserving modern watermelon. Why, I wondered, do people bother to make the watermelon’s narrow inner white rind into pickles and sweet preserves when the red flesh and the seeds have much more nutritional value and flavor? Was the white layer proportionally bigger in watermelons of the past? And what is a pie melon? Did Southerners actually make pies out of a sort of watermelon?
Soon I was reading about the citron melon, the native African watermelon from which our garden varieties were developed. Citron melons grow wild in many hot places today, including the southern United States. Green Deane describes them growing in Florida citrus groves, though the melon wasn’t named for this preferred habitat.* Wild citron melons are said to be usually bland-tasting, but sometimes they’re sweet or bitter. Cultivated varieties are always bland. “Pie melons” can be citron melons or crosses between citron melons and sweet watermelons.
That much I learned from other writers, but I wanted to experience this fruit for myself. So when, in 2011, I found a listing for red-seeded citron melon in the Seed Savers Exchange catalog, I had to send for some seeds.
I couldn’t grow melons of any sort in the cool, short summer of 2011, but in 2012 I did better. My single citron melon vine produced several round fruits, each no more than 7 inches in diameter and striped dark green on a pale green background. I picked the melons at the first frost of the year, in early October, and hoped that they would keep well on the cool tile floor of our entry hall while I spent the next several weeks canning and drying tomatoes, peppers, apples, and pears. Later I would try making some citron melon preserves, which are just like watermelon rind preserves except that you use all of the melon apart from the hard outer rind and the seeds.
In early November one of my readers, Val, suggested that I have a look at a blog post by a writer in southern France concerning “jamming melons,” or melons d’Espagne. In Médoc, writes Mimi Thorisson, everybody makes confiture with these melons just after harvest, in early November. She suggests two variations on the basic confiture, one with vanilla and one with mandarin orange and ginger. Her recipe, I noticed, closely resembles American recipes for citron melon preserves. In her photos, the melons d’Espagne look just like my citron melons.
I consulted other French sources. Some French writers say the melons are harvested in late fall and kept in a cool place until just after Christmas, when they are made into the last preserves of the year. All the French recipes I found are much like both Mimi’s and the American recipes. If melons d’Espagne and red-seeded citron melon aren’t exactly the same variety, they must be very close.
I cut into one of the melons. Inside, it fit the French descriptions. The flesh was pale green and bland tasting. It felt slimy, like aloe. The red seeds were many, large, and hard in comparison with seeds of the sweet watermelon cultivars I know.
I worked out a recipe to suit myself. I didn’t add an apple or chop the melon in a food processor, as one French recipe specifies. This would give a jammy result, and I wanted to make preserves, that is, bite-size pieces of fruit in heavy syrup. I didn’t use the alum called for in some Southern recipes, to give the melon a brittle (and, to me, odd) texture. Instead of choosing either vanilla or orange, as Mimi suggests, I combined the two, as in other recipes.
I used half of a vanilla bean, and the flavor was overwhelming. So in the recipe that follows I call for only a quarter of a bean and offer the option of using ginger instead, as I’ll do next time. If you prefer vanilla to ginger, you might also follow another French tradition: Add a splash of dark rum at the end of cooking.
Citron Melon Preserves
For this recipe you’ll need a melon about 6 inches in diameter or else a piece of a larger melon. Cut the melon in half, and cut each half into narrow wedges. Poke or pry out all of the seeds. Peel each wedge with a knife, and then cut the wedge into ½- to ¾-inch pieces.
3 pounds prepared citron melon pieces
3 tablespoons lemon juice
3 cups sugar
¼ vanilla bean, split lengthwise and slivered crosswise, or 1 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled, sliced thin, and slivered
Put the melon pieces into a preserving pan. Halve the clementines, squeeze out their juice, and add the clementine juice and the lemon juice to the pan. Scrape out any membranes and stringy white bits from the clementine peels, slice the peels into thin strips, and add them to the pan. Add the sugar and the vanilla bean or ginger pieces. Stir gently, cover the pan, and let the mixture rest overnight.
Set the pan over medium heat, and stir gently until the sugar is dissolved. Raise the heat to medium-high, and boil the mixture, uncovered, for about 40 minutes, stirring only occasionally and gently. When the preserves are ready, there will appear to be more fruit than liquid in the pan. The fruit will be partially translucent, and the syrup will form a thread when dropped into a glass of cold water.
Remove the pan from the heat. Ladle the preserves into sterilized half-pint mason jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Add lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 5 minutes.
Note that the syrup will probably jell, but slowly, over a period of days.
Serve the preserves on toast, biscuits, pancakes, or ice cream.
Makes about 4 half-pints
*Nor does the melon taste like citron; it isn’t tart at all. Instead, its English name derives from its generic name, Citrullus, which was first applied to its cousin colocynth, or Citrullus colocynthis, a plant that loves very dry as well as hot conditions. Ripe colocynth fruits on the vine look like oranges scattered about on the ground, as if somebody’s shopping bag had ripped in the middle of the desert. Citrullus colocynthis was once a highly valued medicine, traded throughout the Old World for its purgative effect, despite its horribly bitter taste.
28 thoughts on “For the Last Preserves of the Year: The Humble Citron Melon”
Hi Linda – I love hearing about preserving unique or unusual ingredients, and it sounds like these melons sure do count as unusual. Now that you have a stash of seeds, do you think you’ll grow these again?
Good question, Ingrid. I don’t know whether I’ll grow citron melons again. I’ll decide about next year after I’ve used up this year’s crop (I have two melons left).
I remember my mum growing and making jam out of pie melons years ago. I know that she and my grandmother were a bit avant garde for Australian gardeners back in the 70’s and I remember gran buying multicoloured corn from “overseas” (which was a magic place that only existed prior to the internet…) and threading garlands of it to make incredible necklaces when I was a girl. I also remember how good these jams were! They had thick meaty pieces of melon in them and were delicious on toast. Cheers for reminding me of something that I don’t even think I could buy in a catalogue here now let alone use to make jam…how things have changed!
Thrilled to see your post about citron melons – they are on my wish list for 2013 but I have not been able to locate the seeds yet. You write that cultivated varieties are always bland. Which variety did you grow? Thanks.
I have seed. I send some to a lady in the Spring. Don’t remember who it was. I planted my seed in May and I have one huge melon so far. My mom told me not to pull it until first frost. There are other melons coming on the vine. Would be glad to share some of my seed for you to have next year.
A little late, but wonderful post – I was reading up on possible fodder crops for my livestock here in southern Oregon, where the summers are hot and dry – and had all the same questions as you when I ran across something called “Pie Melon” in the SeedSavers Exchange listings! I was amazed to learn that this is considered a closer-to-wild form of the watermelon, and in fact this type of melon originated in the Kalahari – having grown to realize what a water-hog the watermelon is, I was amazed. Thanks for the blog post, I found some information here I hadn’t run across in other writeups.
I had a pie/citron melon left over from my 2012 growing season and it was still hard and wonderful. I just made these preserves and they are absolutely wonderful! Thank you for the great recipe – would you believe I had everything on hand from the clementines to the fresh ginger! So much fun!!!
You’re very welcome, Nina. Isn’t it amazing how well the melons keep all through winter and into spring?
Linda, I grew up on a farm with my grandparents in the South. My grandmother made the best Citron preserves on the planet. A friend gave me several Citron a couple years ago and I saved the seed. I didn’t know if they were any good but I took a chance and planted them last week. I went out to check on them and the vine has sprouted. So excited. Going to share other seeds with neighbors who have gardens. My mother remembers how to make the preserves and hopefully I will have some later this summer. Can’t wait!
Wonderful, Martha! I hope to hear how your melons and your preserves turn out.
Linda, my Citron vines look good. Can’t wait to taste the wonderful preserves. YUM
Linda, I received an email from someone from your site. She wanted some seed and I gladly sent them to her. She offered to pay me but I just told her to share the wealth. Was happy to help her.
Many thanks, Martha!
Linda,I need to know how to get in touch with Martha, I live in SC and have been trying to get citron seeds or citrons . My mother made preserves- equal amounts of chopped citron and sugar. Cook until thickened and melon is clear, Seal and when ready to eat add a tsp. of vanilla. My family did not like lemon in the preserves.
Sylvia, I saved more citron melon seeds than I can use and would be happy to share. Linda was so kind to give me some of her saved seeds last year, which resulted in a bumper crop. If you like some, let me know.
Hi Linda –
At the beginning of the post you mentioned watermelon rind pickles… I too have wondered (and tried to locate) the right kind of watermelon for making watermelon pickles. I have always assumed the pickles were best when made with an older variety with a thicker rind, and certainly some of those varieties must be available through some of the heirloom seed retailers, but I have not seen any watermelon seed marketed specifically as such – as being the right watermelon for making pickles. When I found this melon on Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, I wondered if this might be what was once used, and a google search turned up your post. Have you tried making pickles with these, or should I keep looking for a thick-rinded traditional watermelon? Thank you in advance!
Lynn, you can certainly pickle citron melons, but I believe that people once commonly made watermelon-rind pickles from sweet, red-fleshed watermelons with thick rinds. Thick-rind varieties listed in the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook include Arikara, Big Billy, Fairfax, and Stone Mountain.
Many listings in the Yearbook mention the thickness of the rind; often a measurement is given. Apparently a lot of people still love watermelon-rind pickles!
Finally!… I grew up eating my mom’s lemon infused citron preserves here in SC, but I was beginning to wonder if they had died out with my parents’ generation. I’d even asked the State Agriculture agent about them a few years ago… he was clueless. Thank you for sharing, as this is a treasured resource. (Not that I want to go into business, but a half-pint would easily bring $15.00 or more in a boutique market.) And once you’ve had them, nothing else ever measures up again.
martha, I am making preserves today. We found citrons growing wild on a farm nearby. I planted your seeds ,but they are not ready yet. I will save the seeds and share. Thanks
Mrs. Burns, I would love to have a few seeds from this wild citron you found! I am a seed saver and am very much invested in biodiversity and preserving “disappearing” varieties of ALL fruits and vegetables! If you would please contact me me at my Plants for Sale Facebook page.https://www.facebook.com/groups/511896968893581/ ~ Thanks for your time!!!! Bracy
Linda, have my first citron melon on the vine and it is huge. Others are forming. Can’t wait for the preserves.
That’s great, Martha. My own vine has died back already, so last evening I brought four citron melons into the house to await the preparation of the Last Preserves of the Year.
Enjoyed this article immensely. the citrons grew in our garden, were picked after frost and stored on shelves in the pantry until they mellowed a little and turned a bit greenish yellow and softened somewhat, basically curing and aging. One night in early winter they came out, were sliced like bread and we all sat around the table picking out the wonderful red seeds (ideal for school pictures). The slices were peeled, cut into bite sized pieces and cooked with sugar and lemon slices. They have a unique flavour and texture, and are a memorable item , different from any other food every tasted throughout the world. So simple, inexpensive, and so unknown today. Other than the fact that they need a lot of sugar, they are an ideal “homesteaders” food item, and would certainly bring in cash $$$ if marketed effectively.
I grew up in Grey County, Southern Ontario, Canada in the 40s abd 50s when the world was still simple and straightforward.
Stewart, thanks so much for the memory.
Hi Stewart,I just read your very interesting article on Citron,I also live in Grey county,My mother used to grow this delicious melon and preserve it every,Unfortunately she has passed and I would love to acquire some citron seeds if possible,Any help would be appreciated,Thanks
My grandmother always made citron preserves. The citron were plentiful in her garden, so she always had more of those than anything else. I preferred her strawberry or blackberry preserves and the citron were never my favorite, but now that she’s gone and citron preserves are so rare, they make me think of her!
I grew Citron and the seeds are white are they any good to use
Brian, I’ve never heard of white-seeded citron melon, but look at the pictures here: https://www.experimentalfarmnetwork.org/project/24. The writer crossed watermelon with citron melon to produce the pictured melons, which seem to have white seeds, black seeds, and some red-tinged seeds. If your melons have white seeds, and they are mature–full and hard–they should be good to use. I encourage you to try them.