The Mule of Fruit

Let’s get real about seedless watermelons: They have seeds

July 19, 2013
July 19, 2013

Americans consume more watermelon than anyone else, and with much of the United States sweltering under the blanket of this summer’s most intense heat wave, the sweet, fleshy, water-logged fruit is having its annual moment.

Watermelons, like all fruit, naturally produce seeds, but these days, the preferred type of watermelon is one that’s seedless. Last year, the seedless variety comprised 73% of all watermelon imported to the US, mainly from Mexico—a dramatic shift from just a decade ago. Seedless watermelons have defeated their seeded brethren.

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The traditional Western watermelon sports a green rind, red flesh, and black seeds, which are slightly bitter under their hard shell. In China, another country serious about its watermelon, the seeds are commonly eaten raw or roasted, but Americans are more accustomed to spitting them out, hence the appeal of a watermelon that dispenses with the black seeds entirely.

But seedless these watermelons are not.

Bite into a so-called seedless watermelon, and you are sure to encounter the other, less-talked-about watermelon seed: white, soft, and translucent. They are the coatings of seeds that haven’t matured. In regular watermelons, about 5% of the seeds are likely to be these undeveloped white ones. But in “seedless” watermelons they predominate, a product of the fruit’s upbringing.

These watermelons are made by crossing pollen, which has 22 chromosomes per cell, with watermelon flowers that have been altered with chemicals. The treated flowers have 44 chromosomes per cell—double the normal amount. The result is a sterile hybrid with 33 chromosomes, known as a triploid. Its seeds are incapable of maturing into hard, black, developed watermelon seeds, and remain mostly hollow shells. But they’re still seeds, if more palatable and less fruitful. Supposedly seedless watermelons can contain hundreds of them.

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Those are seeds!(AP / Ken James)

The National Watermelon Promotion Board, eager to dispel any notions of genetic modification, likens seedless watermelons to mules, a sterile cross-breed of horse and donkey. Free advice for Big Watermelon: You’d be better off drawing comparisons with bananas and cucumbers, which are commonly made “seedless” through similar processes.

The nomenclature, of course, is mostly beside the point. What matters is whether the fruit’s juicy flesh is sufficiently refreshing on a hot summer day, and that has to do with factors unrelated to the presence of seeds. In the US, growers market their watermelon varieties with names resembling designer drugs: Bush Sugarbaby, Millionaire, Ecstasy, Wonderland.

To my taste, though, a mouthful of white seeds can ruin the whole enterprise in a way that black seeds don’t. It’s not just nostalgia for the way watermelons used to be. The white seeds are mealy in large quantities, irksome when mixed into watermelon recipes, and more difficult to avoid than black seeds.

And, yes, it just feels wrong to call a watermelon seedless when its seeds are right there, glimmering in the summer sun.

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