What would Italian sauces taste like without tomatoes, or Thai noodles without chili peppers? These American crops were presumably unavailable in Europe and Asia prior to exchange between the New World and the Old World.
Corn, another New World crop is now grown extensively in both Asia (Figure 1) and Africa. And despite its association with famines in Ireland during the 1840s, potatoes are from the Andes. Watermelons originate from Africa and cucumbers were probably domesticated in Asia. North American grown cantaloupes are far smaller than a cultivar from the Hami region of far western China, the hami melon (Figure 2)
What about other melons and related members of the squash family, the Cucurbitaceae (or cucurbits), particularly those grown in China? After generations of human selection, a staggering diversity of shapes, sizes and tastes of melons has emerged from the domestication of wild species with small, bitter fruit. Some cultivars have even been bred for larger seeds (Figure 3) to snack upon. There are many less familiar Asian melons, available in North America’s ethnic vegetable markets, although they likely were grown in California or Mexico.
Bitter melon is both a food and medicine in Asia. Unlike other melons, domestication has not resulted in the loss of bitterness, perhaps because two classes of bitter compounds are present (and it is the bitterness that is responsible for belief in its efficacy as a medicine), but domestication has resulted in much larger fruits (Figures 4 and 5). The wild type has made its way to Central America where it is a roadside weed and, as in Asia, it is one of the very few plants that are believed to be effective to treat diabetes (Figure 6). In East Indian food markets in Victoria one can buy dried, powdered bitter melon fruit for medicinal purposes (Figure 7).
The ‘vegetable sponge’ (Figure 8) is the dried vascular bundles of the loofah melon whose immature fruits, resembling zucchini, are also edible (Figure 9).
Wax gourd (Figure 10), is available in Victoria’s Chinatown where the young fruit are referred to as mao-gua, (=hairy melon) (Figure 11). A canned beverage is made from its fruit (Figure 12).
What’s in a name?
While researching the ethnobotany (relationships between plants and peoples) of bitter melon, waxgourd and loofah from 1997-1999 in Yunnan Province, China, I visited the villages of many ethnic groups and recorded their names for melons.
The Mandarin name for nearly every kind of melon\squash\gourd is based on gua (bitter melon=ku-gua ; 苦 瓜loofah=si-gua 丝 瓜, waxgourd (or winter melon)=dong-gua 冬瓜, watermelon=xi-gua 西瓜, cantaloupe=xiang-gua 香瓜, cucumber=huang-gua 黄瓜, hami melon=hami-gua 哈密瓜, pumpkin=nangua 南瓜). But the meaning of gua extends beyond melons and describes several other spherical edible plant parts.
Names sometimes are based on features that emphasize superficial similarities, while the plants may actually be very different. While visiting the Dai village of Mane (Figure 13 ), I requested fruits of melons to use in research (Figure 14). Clearly, three of the fruits are melons, but what about the bean pods? These are the seeds of a plant from the bean family, that has an edible root, commonly known in North America as ‘jicama’ or ‘yam bean’ (Figure 15). In Mandarin, a language the Dai also learn, one of several names is di-gua, 地瓜 literally ‘ground melon’. Another example of a gua that is not a ‘melon’ is papaya (Figure 16), named mu-gua 木瓜, literally ‘tree melon’.
In another Dai village, the fruits of mature ribbed loofah (Figure 17) were maknoy ke whereas okra, a small shrub of the cotton family, was maknoy duon (Figure 18). The resemblance of the fruits is clear, but all other parts of these plants are quite different. Duon is a plant that ‘can’t grow ahead’, i.e. it stops growing, whereas ke is a plant that ‘can climb’. The Yao people name bitter melon as holoy nim and snakegourd (Figure 19) as holoy gam. These two plants differ in many regards and belong to different genera. Holoy is a plant that cannot stand on its own (i.e. a vine), while nim means bitter and gam means sweet. While Snakegourd is not sweet, it is definitely not bitter.
Chayote (Figure 20) is a New World crop, as is reflected in its Mandarin name, yang-si-gua, 洋丝瓜, literally ‘foreign loofah’. Here, the name for the non-indigenous crop is modified from the name for the indigenous crop. But this isn’t always the case. In the language of the Lafu people pumpkins are peme-xi, whereas wax gourds are peme-pe-xi (white pumpkin). Similarly, in the language of the Dai people fak is pumpkin, whereas wax gourds are fak-muen (white pumpkin). What is surprising about these names? Pumpkin, New World crop, is much more recent in these cultures, in fact wax gourd is part of the creation story of several ethnic groups. One would expect the name for pumpkin to reflect a modification of the indigenous plant (i.e. why not call it ‘orange waxgourd’?). Apparently, pumpkins may have become more important than wax gourds (in Nepal I was told that they bear fruit earlier than wax gourd). This is reflected linguistically, in a process referred to as ‘marking reversal’, whereby the name for an indigenous object is modified from the name of an introduced object, rather than vice versa.
Finally, one type of melon – in the broadest sense – , the ‘bottle gourd’ is not named as a type of gua. Perhaps it is set apart because of its importance in the mythologies of some Chinese ethnic groups as the vessel from which the ancestors of all human beings emerged following a flood. This plant is named hulu 葫芦 in Mandarin and has many uses including as a ladle, and storage vessel such as for seeds (Figure 21). This image is symbolic of the past, the creation story and the only security for the future, the precious genetic diversity of the crop seeds within. All of humanity owes a debt of gratitude to the generations of subsistence farmers who preserve the genetic diversity of food crops upon which we all depend.
Next time you bite into a melon, contemplate its long journey, in both time and distance, from a bitter wild fruit that has been gradually changed into the tasty morsel that you now enjoy.