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Researchers growing seedless watermelons
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Researchers at Mississippi State University are betting that one day state producers will want to grow seedless watermelons, and when they do, MSU will be ready to help them grow the best ones possible.
Watermelons with seeds are genetically diploids, while those that are seedless or nearly seedless are triploids. In 2001, more than 50 percent of the watermelons consumed nationally were triploids, but in Mississippi, only 5 percent of the crop was seedless. Flavor and texture are characteristics of the variety and are not determined by whether or not the melon has seeds.
In 2000, Rick Snyder, Extension vegetable specialist and horticulture professor at MSU's Truck Crops Branch Experiment Station in Crystal Springs, decided to grow some seedless varieties for research and to gauge consumer interest. He tried this 15 years earlier and interest was nearly nonexistent.
"There's definitely more interest in seedless triploid varieties now than there was back then," Snyder said.
Fifteen years ago, the state had 10,000 acres of watermelons, all of the Jubilee type with an elongated shape, dark green stripes, lots of seeds and a 20 to 25 pound weight. Today, the state has only about 4,000 acres of commercially grown melons, located mostly in the southeastern part of the state.
Snyder said many of Mississippi's vegetable growers are older, and they are not being replaced as they quit farming. Much of the former watermelon acres has gone into timber production.
"Mississippi is a good watermelon state, and they are popular here," Snyder said. "We have a lot of producers and local production, and you can buy a watermelon nearly anywhere for $5 or less."
Watermelon connoisseurs know that each of the watermelon varieties offers a difference in taste, texture and size. The first seedless varieties were small and round, and Snyder said many people don't know that triploids are available now in larger sizes and familiar tastes, shapes and textures.
As national interest in triploids continued to grow, Snyder realized that it was just a matter of time before Mississippi growers would be more interested in growing nearly seedless varieties. He enlisted Kent Cushman to work with him and test different varieties of seedless watermelons. Cushman is a Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station associate research professor of horticulture working at the North Mississippi Research and Extension Center in Verona.
The men started by testing 21varieties at both the north and central Mississippi locations, and found them to do equally well at either site.
"It's really difficult to detect differences among the varieties," Cushman said. "They're all such high quality, and we only found a few that do not do as well."
Cushman said triploid watermelons are expensive to produce as they must be transplanted to the field rather than grown from seed. They do produce seeds, but instead of hard, dark seeds, they are white and immature and can be eaten undetected.
"We're trying to capture the national trend," Cushman said. "It's just a matter of time before producers in Mississippi are going to be interested in producing more of the seedless melons."
Cushman said he and Snyder decided to expand their research to south Mississippi, and began working there with Christine Coker, MAFES assistant research professor in urban horticulture at the Beaumont Horticulture Unit.
Coker began participating in the variety trials this year, the third year of the research, and is growing all eight seedless varieties being tested.
"You have to plant seedless varieties interspersed with regular, seeded watermelons for pollination," Coker said. "We chose to grow Verona, a black diamond type. It's large, round and uniformly green, and the triploids we're growing this year are elongated and striped."
In addition to growing seedless watermelons, Coker is working with square watermelons, which are traditional varieties grown in a box.
"Their biggest advantage is in transportation and storing in the refrigerator, but for truck crop farmers in south Mississippi, they're a marketing tool," Coker said. "People will stop and look at a truck that has square watermelons, and even if they don't buy a square one at a premium price, they'll usually buy one of the others he has."
The MSU researchers already have harvested the nearly seedless watermelons this year and will begin analyzing yield results soon. Once the data has been collected, recommendations will be made concerning which varieties perform well, characteristics of the varieties and more.