Iowa State urges melon diversity for the sake of slashing waste

'These melons are sweeter, they are more aromatic'

Ajay Nair

Sliced melons are examined at Iowa State University by associate professor of horticulture Ajay Nair and his
Ajay Nair Sliced melons are examined at Iowa State University by associate professor of horticulture Ajay Nair and his staff, who determined that smaller melons, which have more flavor and can lead to less waste, are viable to be grown in Iowa.

Summer’s not over yet, and that means neither is melon season.

But unlike most produce shoppers who stick to the traditional watermelon, cantaloupe or muskmelon, one Iowa State University researcher spent his summer digging in — literally — to specialty melons for the sake of science, slashing food waste, and satisfying his sweet tooth.

“These melons are sweeter, they are more aromatic, which means there’s a lot of flavor profile in them,” Iowa State associate professor of horticulture Ajay Nair told The Gazette. “But the unique part is that they’re small. And when there is something so small, there is very little waste.”

A traditional muskmelon at an Iowa farmers market might weigh five to seven pounds. Cantaloupe, a close relative to the muskmelon, can weigh up to nine pounds. Seedless watermelon, popular for their convenience, range from 10 to 25 pounds.

Few people can eat those whole in one sitting, Nair said, and they end up in the fridge.

“After some time, it’s overwhelming, and it might end up in a compost pile or maybe in the trash,” he said. Plus, according to Nair, “The flavor profile goes down as long as it sits in the refrigerator.”

So he and his peers set out to test 10 smaller specialty melons and answer the question of whether they can grow and thrive in Iowa. Their findings revealed: “Definitely.”

“In terms of viability, the weather is such and the soil is such that there is no issue in growing the melons,” Nair said.

The research did uncover some downsides to tip the scale slightly, from the pros of their smaller size, tendency to leave less waste, and intense flavor and aroma. For starters, those who do still have leftovers from the smaller melons won’t find them as easy to store and keep.


Growers also will find them more challenging to harvest, as traditional muskmelons fall off their stems when ready and these must be clipped — even when ripe, Nair said.

“Don’t wait for the melon to fall down, because it will be too much overripe and it’s not eatable at all at that point,” he said.

The varieties they tested ranged from Charentais, from western France weighing two to three pounds; Divergent, with an orange flesh like cantaloupe; Eden’s Gem, a green-fleshed heirloom variety; and Pixie, a “snack-size” melon.

Some of the melons can be as small as a softball, Nair said. But, he stressed, bigger isn’t always better when it come to taste and waste.

“These absolutely can be grown here in Iowa, and they’re something new to look into,” he said. “Add some splash to your fruit and vegetable palate.”

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