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My Life: The Mule in My Garden

How to Grow Seedless Watermelons


I eat most of my meals and drippy snacks while leaning over my kitchen sink. Which, by the way always reminds me of a joke I heard a long time ago. The very quirky comedienne, Elayne Boosler once said, and I paraphrase, “There’s a new restaurant in town for single people. Instead of tables, they just lined up rows of sinks.”

Anyway, the other day while I was positioned over my sink eating a large piece of seedless watermelon, I had an anti-epiphany. Since the dictionary defines epiphany as “a moment of sudden revelation or insight,” I can’t help but to think that I had the opposite of one of those or, “a startling, spontaneous and profound sense of bewilderment and questioning” (my definition). As I wiped the sticky watermelon juice from my mouth, chin, and the front of my T-shirt, I asked myself, “How the blazes do you even grow a seedless watermelon if there are no seeds to plant?”

After intense research (Wikipedia and a few other sites), I discovered that there are two ways to get seedless watermelons. One method involves botanical intrigue, sweaty plant sex, and chemicals. The other way, well, it isn’t so sexy.

We’ll begin with the more complicated technique. But first, a little botany. A regular watermelon—that is, the kind with the hard, viable black seeds is diploid, or contains 22 chromosomes. If you recall from high school biology, chromosomes are the threadlike structures consisting of nucleic acids and proteins that live in the nuclei of most living cells. They carry the genetic information in the form of genes. Okay, if you wake up now, I will continue. The hard part is over and there will not be a quiz.

This is how they make the plants that produce the seed that make the plants that produce the seedless watermelons. At the “seed factory” with the help of a chemical called colchicine, the chromosomes are doubled in the normal, 22-chromosome, diploid watermelon plant. It is now called tetraploid and contains 44 chromosomes.

And now the racy stuff—reader discretion is advised. They then put the pollen from a regular, diploid (22) watermelon plant onto the flower of our now, “un-regular” or chemically treated tetraploid (44) plant.

The resulting seed from this breeding produces a plant with 33 chromosomes, or triploid, that is like the mule of the gardening world. Because, like a mule, which is the sterile offspring of a horse and a donkey, these plants produce the seedless (or sterile) watermelons.

Thanks for bearing with me—but wait, there’s more. When you buy seeds to grow seedless watermelons, these seeds germinate and become those same triploid, 33-chromosome watermelon plants.

Booyah! I was further blown away to learn, that in order to get seedless watermelons in your garden, you have to interplant these triploid seeds with—you’ll never guess—regular ol’, garden variety, 22-chromosome watermelons. Instructions may vary but it is generally recommended that you plant one “regular watermelon seed” for every two seedless seeds in your garden at sowing time.

So let’s review. Since the seedless watermelon is sterile and can’t pollinate itself, it needs the standard (22) guy to help out and do the pollinating in order for the seedless (33) to bear fruit.

Oh and the other, less sexy way to get a seedless watermelon? Get in your car and drive to Trader Joe’s. Go into the produce aisle and find the seedless watermelons. Bang on a few until you find one that sounds hollow. Buy it.

Although seedless watermelon now accounts for the majority of all watermelon eaten in the U.S., I have to admit that I remain partial to the original type—the one with all those jet-black, slimy seeds. I mean really, on a baking hot, September afternoon at Mesa Lane Beach, if I go seedless, what am I supposed to spit at my friends?

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