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Seedless Watermelons On Verge Of Making It Big, Researcher Says

Cindy Spence

Don Maynard (941) 751-7636

BRADENTON—Champion watermelon-seed spitters may revile University of Florida researcher Don Maynard, but consumers whose only interest in watermelon is culinary will cheer him.

Maynard, you see, is working on perfecting the seedless watermelon.

With up to 1,000 seeds each, the traditional watermelon can give even diehard melon fans a fit. And in addition to having no seeds for a melon muncher to navigate, the seedless watermelons are sweeter, Maynard said.

“These are just a pleasure to eat,” Maynard said. “We’ve taken thousands of measures of the sugar content, and seedless fruit are always higher in sugar. It’s a premium, sweet watermelon.”

Maynard expects seedless watermelons to mimic the popularity of seedless varieties of other fruits, such as grapes and grapefruit.

“People will eat more of a fruit without the seeds,” Maynard said. “There is no doubt in my mind seedless will constitute a larger part of the market in the future.”

Watermelon consumption in the United States dipped to about 10 pounds per person per year about 15 years ago. With seedless varieties trickling into the market now, consumption is over 17 pounds per person per year.

The seedless watermelon also fits in nicely with the latest trend in the fruit and vegetable industry toward fresh-cut produce that can be purchased ready-to-eat at the supermarket. With seedless, Maynard said, there’s virtually no waste, just solid flesh beneath the rind.

The absence of seeds also extends the watermelon’s shelf life, Maynard said. When a watermelon becomes just a bit overripe, flesh around the seed begins to disintegrate and leaves a hollow area, which speeds up deterioration. Occasionally, a few seeds appear in a seedless watermelon, but by and large it’s seedless.

While the seedless watermelon was first engineered 50 years ago by a Japanese scientist, early varieties were not commercially viable. Maynard joined the research on seedless watermelons about 14 years ago and said he has seen real breakthroughs recently in producing dependable varieties.

“After 40 years of trying, recently we’ve come up with some improved seedless varieties,” Maynard said. “They can become the standard now, rather than being experimental.”

At mostly 12 to 18 pounds per melon, seedless varieties won’t win any giant fruit or vegetable contests. Anyone growing for size will need to stick with traditional watermelons, which may reach gigantic proportions. What seedless melons lack in size, they make up for in sweetness. Maynard said seedless varieties are sweeter because the energy that would have been used to make seeds is used to make sugar instead.

Until recently, growers have been reluctant to invest heavily in seedless watermelons because they are several times more expensive to grow. But greater returns at the market and advances in production are making farmers more confident about growing them, Maynard said.

“Initially, the difference in cost seems shocking, but growers and consumers see a big difference in quality as well, with the seedless watermelons being superior to the seeded varieties,” Maynard said. “The price difference is substantial; as much as 10 cents a pound is not uncommon. But they’re worth it.

“We urge farmers to have a market before they decide what to plant — as with any crop — but seedless watermelon is getting more and more profitable, and seedless watermelon consumption is increasing every year,” Maynard said.

Maynard said the seedless watermelon could become an important component of the already strong Florida watermelon market. The season begins in mid-April in Immokalee, thrives during the summer and continues with a small fall crop, putting Florida in watermelon production up to eight months of the year.

“We’re in the market for a long time, and Florida is usually a leading producer of watermelon nationally,” Maynard said.

Still, the seeded varieties are not obsolete. Seedless watermelons, which produce little pollen, must be interplanted with seeded varieties to provide for germination and pollination. The seeded varieties also must have a rind that looks different to avoid marketing seeded melons as seedless.

Maynard says the new melons won’t put watermelon-seed spitters out of commission anytime soon.

“In Florida, we will always need the seeded varieties,” Maynard said. “Without the seeded watermelons we wouldn’t be able to have our traditional seed-spitting contests.”