I love this watermelon. It may not be the sweetest in the world (it’s good enough) when grown in my garden, but it’s one of the most striking. It combines a marbled, scaly-bark rind pattern, vivid red or crimson flesh that makes me blink—the likes of which I’ve rarely seen in heirlooms—and attractive seed coat patterning when fresh. The rind is quite thin, so you get more for your melon.
This cultivar has only recently been reintroduced by Glenn Drowns of Sand Hill Preservation Center. He wrote in his 2006 catalogue: “A uniquely colored melon that we are pleased to offer again to the public after many years of being out of circulation. We were thrilled when a customer sent us a sample of this variety which I’d only seen a picture of in a 1961 seed catalogue. The rind is somewhat mottled in appearance giving it excellent sunburn resistance. The 10 to 20 pound melons have solid, firm, super sweet red flesh.”
Glenn recently forwarded to me a scan of that 1961 Hollar Seeds clipping from his archives: “The Wilson Sweet is another small family size melon weighing about 20 pounds, with Cletex marked rind [marbled like Spotted Watson] that is very tough and thin, will ship or haul anywhere. The shape is round, exactly as pictured; flesh beautifully red, solid and firm, fine textured; cutting qualities perfect. Maturity approximately 85 days. They have yellow bellies when ripe; medium size seed that are white with black tips.”
I reached out to Bruce Carle, a plant breeder at Hollar Seeds in Rocky Ford, Colorado. He checked his database and talked to Bob Nelson, their retired production man. The upshot is that Wilson Sweet may have been around as early as 1916, and originated in Lee County, Virginia. Bruce explained, “At that time the fledgling seed trade was acquiring popular local watermelon varieties from growers, producing them, and offering them for sale. The primary source for watermelon varieties was the southeast. Those varieties that proved successful endured in the trade but were eventually eclipsed and replaced by USDA and University developed varieties. Bob said Wilson Sweet had a following because it was early. Its problem, however, was that it had a fragile rind and did not ship.” They carried the variety until about 1969, but sales were limited to the pack trade in the southeast.
Hollar did not introduce Wilson Sweet (it predates 1950, the year Hollar went into business). Bruce says that Vic Hollar, founder of the company that bears his name, was “instrumental in establishing a certified seed program in Colorado for watermelon. Prior to that, most of the commercial watermelon seed was produced in Florida and Georgia and had off-types due to out-crossing with the citron watermelon. Consequently, he was the go-to guy, adding varieties to feed the demand. Rather quickly, all the major seed producers moved their watermelon (and melon) production to Colorado and then to California. Getting away from the citron problem and taking advantage of the dry climate and irrigation to produce disease-free seed.”
Vic is now 102. His son, Larry, who joined the Whealys’ expedition to Merle Van Doren’s house in Missouri to retrieve Moon and Stars watermelon, is enjoying retirement. Which leads me to paraphrase my own father, Sol: “If you eat watermelon for a hundred years, you’ll live a long time.”