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Watermelons shrink to meet consumer demand

We’re dismayed to find that there are no longer any nice, big, juicy watermelons available like in the past. Even the famed Hermiston watermelons seem to have shrunk like all the other “personal sized” seedless melons in the stores. The small melons cost almost as much as the picnic-sized ones used to, but they don’t seem to have as much flavor and don’t provide ammunition for seed-spitting contests. Where have the old-fashioned watermelons all gone?

— Oscar, Medford

You can blame your fellow consumers for the demise of the giant watermelons that were once the stars of picnics and family reunions.

Most consumers, especially those living in cities, want smaller watermelons that fit in their grocery carts and refrigerators.

Smaller melons are also more lucrative for farmers, who can grow almost twice as many pounds of small watermelons on a piece of land than their large, ungainly cousins, according to the New York Times, which looked into the issue of shrinking watermelons.

Small watermelons are typically the result of hybridization.

Creating seedless watermelons also requires human intervention.

Young watermelon plants are treated with the chemical colchicine. When seeds develop, they are sterile and don’t develop the hard black seed coat found on traditional watermelon seeds, according to National Public Radio.

If it’s any consolation, all this tinkering with watermelons isn’t new.

Wild watermelons originated in Africa and were bitter with hard, pale green flesh and lots of seeds. Egyptians may have begun cultivating the melons more for their water content than their taste, but over several thousand years, humans were able to selectively breed watermelons to make the flesh sweet and soft, according to National Geographic.

Since the gene for sugar content is paired with the gene for the color red, the original pale green flesh of the watermelon gradually changed until it had turned red. By medieval times, people were eating oblong, green-striped watermelons with red interiors that would be recognizable to modern humans, National Geographic says.

Send questions to “Since You Asked,” Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@rosebudmedia.com. We’re sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.

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