Fruit grown commercially in the United States marketed as “cantaloupe” (Cucumis melo ‘cantaloupensis’) is actually muskmelon (Cucumis melo ‘reticulatus’), though both are members of the same family. The Cucurbitaceae family also includes squash, gourds, pumpkins, watermelon, and cucumbers. Cross-pollination within the family does not result in poor melon quality, as an old wives’ tale suggests, but results in seeds to produce an entirely new fruit.
Curcurbits may have originated in southern Mexico and Central America, but cantaloupe was originally cultivated in the Near East including Turkey, China, India, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan.
Cantaloupe was grown by Native Americans near Montreal in the 1500s and made its way to the U.S. East Coast by the mid-1700s. Commercial marketing of cantaloupe did not begin until in the 1870s.
The majority of domestic production is in California, while Mexico is a significant grower and exporter.
Types & Varieties
While there are many varieties and hybrids of cantaloupe developed for size, sweetness, and hardiness during shipping, types are generally separated into Western or Eastern Shipper.
Western varieties include Hale’s Best, Sweet n’ Early, Hearts of Gold, Hy-Mark, Top Mark, Charmel, Charentais, Galia, Impac, Gold Rush, Navigator, Gold Express, Oro Rico, Archer, Gold Express, and Durango.
These varieties are usually grown in western states and shipped to markets across the country, though they can be grown anywhere with appropriate conditions.
Most are harvested at half-slip, when the fruit has only partially pulled away from the stem and can continue to ripen during packing and shipping.
Eastern varieties include Allstar, Ambrosia, Athena, Burpee Hybrid, Cordele, Durango, Earligold, Primo, Pulstar, Staticoy, Superstar, Sweet Dream, and Tasty Sweet. These varieties are usually grown for local markets and do not ship long distances.
Cantaloupe can be directly seeded or transplanted. Either method requires wide rows and adequate spacing in between plants. Ideally, harvest should be from 2,000 to 5,000 cantaloupe per acre on bare ground and from 6,000 to 12,000 per acre on plastic mulch. Smaller varieties of less than 3 pounds each may yield as many as 20,000 per acre.
Planting should take place after frost risk with soil temperatures above 60°F. Average air temperatures should range from 65 to 95°F. Growing conditions should include full sun and well-drained, possibly sandy soil with a 5.8 to 6.6 pH.
Constant moisture is needed throughout the season; drip irrigation is best as it produces less foliage and allows honeybees unrestricted access for pollination. Mulching is ideal to keep soil moisture levels constant and minimize disease.
One honeybee colony placed either beside or within each acre is needed at early flowering, hives can be removed when fruit is set. Approximate time from pollination to harvest is 30 to 35 days.
Cantaloupe is ready to harvest when the fruit surface shows raised, well-rounded netting. Harvest-readiness is determined by maturity, not size. Fruit is hand-picked between half- and full-slip and will ripen after picking but not increase in sugar content.
Cantaloupes at full-slip have reached their maximum sugar development. External color varies at this stage and may be slightly greenish. Multiple harvests and frequent picking ensure premium quality.