Medieval History of the Duda’im Melon (Cucumis melo, Cucurbitaceae)
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- Paris, H.S., Amar, Z. & Lev, E. Econ Bot (2012) 66: 276. doi:10.1007/s12231-012-9205-4
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Medieval History of the Duda’im Melon (Cucumis melo, Cucurbitaceae). Melons, Cucumis melo, are a highly polymorphic species for fruit characteristics. The melons that are the most valued are the ones that turn sweet when ripe, including the muskmelons, cantaloupes, and casabas. Others, including the elongate adzhur, conomon, and snake melons, are consumed when immature, like cucumbers. The duda’im melons, Cucumis melo Duda’im Group, are special, as their small, spherical, thin-fleshed, insipid but beautifully maroon, dark-orange, or brown-and-yellow striped ripe fruits are valued for ornament and especially for their lush fragrance. The distinctive properties of duda’im melons are matched with special names given to them in several languages and geographical areas, which have made possible tracing of the history of these melons to mid-9th century Persia. From that region, duda’im melons diffused westward, likely facilitated by Islamic conquests, reaching North Africa and Andalusia in the 10th century.
Key WordsCrop evolutionCucumis meloCultivar-groupDuda’imFragranceMelonMedieval history
Melons, Cucumis melo L. (Cucurbitaceae), are among the most popular vegetable crops. The melons that are most familiar in the Western and other economically advanced countries are ripe, sweet, dessert melons. These are considered to consist of three cultivar-groups: the Muskmelons (Reticulatus Group), the Cantaloupes (Cantalupensis Group), and the Casabas (Inodorous Group) (Burger et al. 2006, 2010; Goldman 2002; Pitrat et al. 2000). Each of these groups encompasses many local, regional, and international market types. A fourth cultivar-group, the Oriental Sweet Melons (Makuwa Group), is familiar in China. There are also some cultivar-groups of melons which are not sweet. The Snake Melons (Flexuosus Group) and Adzhur Melons (Adzhur Group) are valued in a wide belt of warm climates, from northern Africa, across the Near East, to the Indian subcontinent. They are used immature, fresh in salads, or pickled. Oriental Pickling Melons (Conomon Group), which are familiar in China and Japan, are used in the same fashion. In India, ripe fruits of Acid Melons (Acidulus Group) and Phut Melons (Momordica Group) are cooked. Perhaps the most unique usage is that of the Duda’im Melons (Duda’im Group), also known as Queen Anne’s Pocket Melons. Duda’im melons, which are not sweet, are valued for their exotic odor and ornamental beauty.
Cucumis melo originated in Asia (Sebastian et al. 2010), and diverse wild and primitive melons are found on that continent, particularly in India (Chakravarty 1982; Dhillon et al. 2012; Roy et al. 2012). Wild or feral melons have also been observed in northern Australia (Telford et al. 2011), southern United States (Decker-Walters et al. 2002), and northeastern Africa (Mohamed and Yousif 2004). The small (3–6 cm diameter), smooth, round fruits of wild and feral melons are bland, bitter, sour, or slightly sweet. The plants are herbaceous, procumbent annuals bearing tendrils and bright yellow flowers about 2 cm across (Kirkbride 1993, Pages 79–82; Robinson and Decker-Walters 1997, Pages 65–70; Rosa 1924). They thrive in warm, sunny areas having fertile, well-drained soils.
Melons have been cultivated for several thousand years (Robinson and Decker-Walters 1997, Pages 65–70). Cultigens exhibit much fruit diversity, ranging in size from about 5 cm in diameter to 10 kgs or more, in shape from oblate, spherical, oval, pyriform, fusiform, to extremely long and serpentine, with or without stripes, and lobes and furrows (“sutures”) or wrinkles or warts or netting, highly aromatic or not at all, with relatively thin or thick fruit flesh that at maturity is orange, green, cream, or white and that remains bland or becomes sweet or sour (Burger et al. 2010).
Although not often seen in large western markets, duda’im melons are a popular item among gardeners and hobbyists because of their distinctive, desirable fragrance and appearance. Our objective is to document the early history of these melons.
The Cucurbitaceae encompass a number of polymorphic crop species and exhibit much parallel variation among taxa (Vavilov 1951, Pages 57–69). Attempts at understanding their history have been confounded by this parallel variation and by lack of descriptions of characteristics that can distinguish between the various taxa. Ancient and medieval texts focus on supposed medical properties of plants and foods, providing prescriptions but lacking descriptions of the plants and fruits themselves (Dalby 2003, Pages viii–xvi). Moreover, names of cucurbits often differ according to context, time, language, and geography (Paris et al. 2012a). Correct interpretations of the often fragmentary descriptions require familiarity with traits that differentiate among related taxa and also require judicious consideration of the literary context, time, and place. Fortunately, the distinctive appearance and odor of duda’im melons and the special names given them set them apart from other cucurbits, allowing reconstruction of their early history. Our approach herein will be both chronological and geographical, beginning with Mediterranean antiquity and followed by medieval Latin Europe, Southwestern and Central Asia, and Andalusia (Iberian Peninsula) and North Africa.
Mediterranean Antiquity (to 500 C.E.)
To our knowledge, there is no description of melons of the Duda’im Group in Mediterranean antiquity. Round melons, harvested when ripe, were grown in antiquity but they are less frequently mentioned and depicted than the elongate adzhur and snake melons (Janick et al. 2007; Paris et al. 2009, 2011). Probably the best description of the round melons was by Pliny who, in his Latin-language Historia Naturalis (Book 19, 23:67) (1st century), wrote that the melopepo was a round, aromatic yellow fruit that detached from the plant when ripe (Janick et al. 2007; Paris et al. 2012b; Rackham 1950, Pages 460–469). This melopepo, undoubtedly, was Cucumis melo, as this is the only cultivated Old World cucurbit having a fruit which detaches from the vine spontaneously, and the yellow color, indicative of fruit ripeness, is common in C. melo. Galen, a 2nd-century physician, wrote in his De Alimentorum Facultatibus that the melopepon was less cold and less wet than the pepon (watermelon, Citrullus lanatus [Thunb.] Matsum. & Nakai) (Grant 2000, Pages 113–114; Janick et al. 2007; Paris et al. 2012b; Powell and Wilkins 2003, Pages 74–75). This same melopepon, called melafefon in Hebrew, was discussed as a food item in codices of rabbinical commentaries known as the Mishna (2nd century) and Tosefta (3rd century). The Latin cookbook of Apicius, De Re Coquinaria (ca. 400 C.E.), has a preparation for spiced raw pepones et melones (Flower and Rosenbaum 1974, Pages 74–79). The Roman agricultural writer Palladius, in his De Re Rustica (4th century), described seed treatments to make cucumeres (snake melons) become dulcis and melones become aromatic and suave (Cabaret-Dupaty 1844, Pages 202–205). From all of these texts, it is apparent that the round melons of the Roman period were consumed (Janick et al. 2007; Paris et al. 2012b) and thus not of the Duda’im Group but rather of the Adana Group, which are fairly large, round melons having thin, mealy, slightly sweet flesh (Cizik 1952, Pages 829–832).
Medieval (500–1500 C.E.) Latin Europe
We found no descriptions of duda’im melons in medieval Latin writings. Walahfrid Strabo, of southern Germany, in his poem, Hortulus (ca. 840), described melons as round to rather slender, nut-shaped or oval, and yellowish, aromatic, hollow inside, and flavorful (Payne and Blunt 1966, Pages 38–41). Albertus Magnus of Germany, in his De Vegetabilibus (ca. 1260) (Jessen 1867, Pages 501–502), described melons as yellow with an uneven surface, composed of regular semi-circles in relief. In the medieval health manuals (ca. 1400) known as Tacuinum Sanitatis, large, round, yellow, aromatic melons are depicted (Paris et al. 2009). Quite likely, the melons in all three of these works were of the Adana Group (Paris et al. 2009; 2012b). As they were esculents or had an “uneven,” lobed surface, they could not have been of the Duda’im Group.
Duda’im Melons in Southwestern and Central Asia
Early references to Duda’im melons.
Focus of writing
Year of writing*
Sabur ibn Sahl
Southwestern Iran or Baghdad
Ibn Masawaih (cf. Ibn al-Baytar)
Southwestern Iran or Baghdad
Iran or southeastern Iraq
Is-haq ibn Suliman al-Isra’ili
Muhammad ibn Hawqal
Kramers and Wiet 1964
‘Arib ibn Sa‘id al-Qurtubi
Al-Tamimi (cf. Ibn al-Baytar)
Khorasan (Central Asia)
Ibn Ridwan (cf. Ibn al-Baytar)
Ibn al-Banna of Marrakech
Yuhanna ibn Masawaih (777–857), a contemporary of Sabur ibn Sahl, was a physician from southwestern Iran who studied and worked in Baghdad (Levey 1961). He wrote medical treatises, all of which have been lost, but his work was cited by ‘Abdullah ibn al-Baytar, author of a great 13th-century pharmacological compendium, Kitab al-jami‘ fi-mufradat al-adwiya wa al-agh-dhiya (Dictionary of Simples and Diet). Ibn al-Baytar quoted Ibn Masawaih as writing that the dastabouya, duda’im melons, relaxed the stomach (Leclerc 1883, Vol. 1, Page 241).
Abu Hanifa Ahmad al-Dinawari, a resident of Dinawar (west-central modern-day Iran) who had studied in Isfahan (central Iran), Basra, and Kufa (modern Iraq), wrote in Arabic the philological and lexicographical Kitab al-Nabat (Book of Plants) (ca. 880). He had several written sources of information, all dating to the early 9th century, although he also gathered some oral information on his own (Breslin 1986). He wrote that the luffah are a kind of yaqtin (Hamidullah 1993, Page 528). According to Ibn al-Baytar (Leclerc 1883, Vol. 3, Pages 428–429), the yaqtin are gourds (Lagenaria siceraria [Mol.] Standl., Cucurbitaceae) or plants that are herbaceous and procumbent, like those of gourds. Ibn al-Baytar commented that the Arabic word luffah properly designates mandrakes (Mandragora spp.), but was commonly used for duda’im melons (Leclerc 1883, Vol. 3, Pages 240–241). In writing that the luffah were a kind of yaqtin, Al-Dinawari could only have been referring to duda’im melons.
Muhammad Abu al-Qasim ibn Hawqal, a Kurdish native of what is now southeastern Turkey, travelled extensively around the Islamic Empire. In his travelogue, Configuration of the Land, he wrote that he saw the highly aromatic dastanbouya, duda’im melons, in what is now northwestern Iran, in 969 (Kramers and Wiet 1964, Arabic Page 314, French Page 360). Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni, a native of Central Asia, wrote in his book of pharmacy and materia medica, As-Saydana fit-Tibb (ca. 1048), that the Arabic shammam are the Persian dastabouya or dastambouya, small melons that look like colocynths, Citrullus colocynthis (L.) Schrad., having red, green, and yellow stripes, and a pleasant odor (Said 1973, Pages 358–360). The Persian-language version of the Tora (Pentateuch), dating to 1319, translates the Hebrew duda’im (mandrakes of Genesis 30:14–16) as dastambouha (Paper 1972, Page 35).
The pharmacological dictionary of Ibn al-Baytar is thought to have been taken largely from an earlier work (ca. 1160) of another Andalusian, Ahmad al-Ghafiqi (Meyerhof and Sobhy 1932). However, Ibn al-Baytar added some original information which he gained from observing plants in the Levant (Amar 1995). His dictionary, neatly prepared in alphabetical order, was completed in Damascus (ca. 1245). He wrote that the dastabouya, duda’im melons, were called shammam and luffah in Syria, although properly the luffah were the fruits of mandrakes. These were small melons of the same shape and size as colocynths, striped with red, green, and yellow, and pleasantly aromatic (Leclerc 1883, Vol. 2, Page 87 and Page 345, and Vol. 3, Pages 240–241).
Eliyyahu Besaychi, a scholar from a leading Qara’ite Jewish family initially from Adrianopoli and then Constantinople (modern Turkey), wrote a book in Hebrew on Jewish law (ca. 1490) that after his death became known as Adderet Eliyyahu (Anqori 1966). In this work, he described the differing properties of several cultivars of watermelons. He wrote that there was a kind of melon that was similar to watermelons but much smaller, about the size of an apple or pomegranate. These melons were not eaten because they were insipid and youths played with them. Moreover, he wrote that mar’itam adummim yeruqqiyyim—they had a red and green appearance (Anqori 1966, Page 393). This description is similar to that of the shammam, synonym dastanbouya, of Al-Biruni (Said 1973, Pages 358–360) and of Ibn al-Baytar (Leclerc 1883, Vol. 2, Page 345) as striped red, green, and yellow. Duda’im melons, when immature, are striped dark and light green, suggestive of watermelons (Trelease 1894). Duda’im melons turn maroon and orange-yellow as they ripen (Fig. 1).
Duda’im Melons in Andalusia and Northern Africa
Duda’im Group melons were described in Andalusia and North Africa beginning in the 10th century (Table 1). Is-haq ibn Suliman al-Isra’ili (Ysaac Judaeus), a medical author of Qayrawan (Tunisia), wrote in his Kitab al-Aghdhiya wa al-Adwiya (Book of Foods and Simple Remedies) (ca. 920) that the matarraq (meaning striped in North African dialect; Y. Serri, Zefat College, personal communication) melons were the dastanbouya but were thought by common people to be a kind luffah (mandrakes) (Sabbah 1992, Pages 349–351). In the Cordoban Calendar (2nd half of 10th century) (Pellat 1961, Page 76) and the Calendar of Ibn al-Banna of Marrakech (ca. 1310) (Renaud 1948, Page 40), the luffah were listed to be sown in April, together with the khiyar (cucumbers, Cucumis sativus L.).
Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Tamimi, a physician from Jerusalem who lived in the 10th century (Amar and Serri 2004), was quoted by Ibn al-Baytar (Leclerc 1883, Vol. 1, Page 241) as writing that the dastabouya were what Egyptians erroneously called luffah, and were also known as shammam. They resembled round watermelons but were smaller, distinctly striped like a garment called ‘attabi, red and yellow, and their aroma was like that of the mandrake, as it was pleasant, cooling, and provoked sleep. Nasiri Khosraw, a traveller from Maru, Khorasan (modern Turkmenistan), who wrote in Persian, listed in his Safarnama (Book of Travels) the dastanbouya as among the fruits and vegetables he saw when he visited Old Cairo in December 1048 (Schefer 1970, Persian Page 51, French Pages 150–151). Ibn Ridwan, an 11th-century Egyptian physician (Dols 1984), was quoted by Ibn al-Baytar (Leclerc 1883, Vol. 2, Page 88) as writing that the dastabouya have warm rinds that aid the stomach and digestion. Al-Nuwayri, an Egyptian and author of the encyclopedic The Aim of the Intelligent in Arts and Letters (early 14th century), wrote that the melons known as dastanbouya in Iraq and shammam in the Levant were locally known as luffah and had striped fruits, but the true luffah is a different species (Al-Nuwayri 1923, Vol. 11, Pages 30–31; Amar 2000, Page 285).
Abu al-Khayr of Seville, ca. 1100, in The Physician’s Reliance on the Knowledge of Plants, wrote that the nuffah (distortion of luffah) were the dastanbouka (Al-Khattabi 1990, Pages 86–87; probably an error in copying or printing from dastanbouya). Another Andalusian author, Ibn al-‘Awwam, who in his Kitab al-Filaha (Book of Agriculture) (ca. 1180) cited Al-Khayr repeatedly, described the nuffah as having smooth rinds, tender flesh, and a perfumey odor (Clément-Mullet 1866, Vol. 2, Pages 222–223; El Faïz 2000, Pages 683–684). He devoted a section to cultivation of the nuffah, advising deployment of the same cultural practices used to grow other melons.
The earliest mention of duda’im melons that is known to us appeared in the Dispensatory of Sabur ibn Sahl in the middle of the 9th century (Table 1; Kahl 2009). According to Ibn al-Baytar (Leclerc 1883), they were mentioned by Ibn Masawaih, who was a contemporary of Sabur ibn Sahl. In the latter half of the 9th century, the duda’im melons were mentioned in Abu Hanifa al-Dinawari’s Book of Plants (Hamidullah 1993). All three authors, Ibn Sahl, Ibn Masawaih, and Al-Dinawari, grew up in what is now Iran and studied in Iraq. By the middle of the 10th century, the duda’im melons were known to Is-haq ibn Suliman in Tunisia (Sabbah 1992), to Al-Tamimi in Egypt (cited by Ibn al-Baytar, in Leclerc 1883), and in the environs of Cordoba, Spain (Pellat 1961). They were seen marketed in Egypt in the 11th century by Nasiri Khosraw, a traveller from Central Asia (Schefer 1970). Apparently, duda’im melons diffused westward, from Iran and Iraq, to lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea to its east, south, and west. Although there are references for the presence of melons to the north of the Mediterranean Sea in medieval times (Janick et al. 2007; Paris et al. 2009; 2012b), we did not find any that referred specifically to duda’im melons that antedate the late 15th-century Hebrew writing from Turkey of Eliyyahu Besaychi (Anqori 1966).
Duda’im melons were not merely gathered from feral plants; they were a crop plant that was grown as far west as Spain by the late 12th century and important enough to deserve a special section in Ibn al-‘Awwam’s Book of Agriculture (Clément-Mullet 1866; El Faïz 2000). Quite likely, the cropping of duda’im melons was primarily for their fragrance and ornamental value, but they were also prescribed in medicine by Sabur ibn Sahl (Kahl 2009) and Ibn Masawaih and Ibn Ridwan (as cited by Ibn al-Baytar, in Leclerc 1883). The mention by Eliyyahu Besaychi (Anqori 1966) that these ball-like fruits were used as toys by youths suggests that the duda’im melons were inexpensive, even quite common, by the end of the 15th century in Turkey.
The Arabic-language Compendium of Medicine by the Andalusian physician Ibn Habib (Alvarez de Morales and Giron Irueste 1992), ca. 850, appears to be the first writing in western Europe to mention khiyar (cucumbers, Cucumis sativus) (Paris et al. 2012a), a crop native to the Indian subcontinent (Bisht et al. 2004; Sebastian et al. 2010) that arrived in Andalusia subsequent to Islamic conquest. The earliest mention of the duda’im melon that appeared in the western flank of the Islamic Empire is in the medical work by Ysaac Judaeus of Tunisia, ca. 920 (Sabbah 1992). Although Ysaac may have learned of the eastern name for duda’im melons, dastanbouya, from his Baghdadian tutor (Friedenwald 1944), he apparently knew them personally, indicating the synonymy with the north African name matarraq, and that a common but incorrect name was luffah. In the Cordoban Calendar, which was written a few decades later, the luffah is mentioned together with khiyar, cucumbers, indicating that the intention was to duda’im melons, not mandrakes (Pellat 1961). These writings antedate by 150 and 200 years the first writing indicating the presence of sugary melons in Andalusia (Paris et al. 2012b) and thus it seems likely that the arrival of cucumbers and of duda’im melons there from the east preceded that of sweet melons.
A number of plants arrived in Mediterranean lands from the east via the Sabean Lane—a maritime trade route from the Indian subcontinent, along the south coast of Persia and Arabia, then northwards via the Red Sea to Egypt—then via a short overland journey to the Mediterranean coast, completely across the Islamic Empire from its most eastern to its most western extents (Harvey 1975; O’Leary 1964). A number of “new” crops and cultivars are thought to have reached the West as a result of Islamic conquest, trade, and agricultural development (Watson 1983), and to these can now be added duda’im melons. Duda’im melons reached the westernmost Mediterranean, Tunisia and Andalusia, from the east, Persia and Central Asia. Cucumbers are another crop that diffused westward via the same route; however, the first entry of cucumbers into Europe appears to have been overland from Persia into an eastern part of that continent (Paris et al. 2012a).
Duda’im melons are to this day a crop in Iran (Soltani et al. 2010) and neighboring Turkmenistan (McCreight et al. 2010). Small, spherical, striped, odoriferous melons are also feral on several continents. Wild melons growing in northern India were classified as separate species, C. callosus (Rottler) Cogn. & Harms and C. trigonus Roxb., until they were shown to be fully cross-compatible with C. melo (Parthasarathy and Sambandam 1980; Sebastian et al. 2010). From historical records, it appears likely that duda’im melons were first selected in Persia. Nonetheless, their close similarity to wild melons suggests the possibility that duda’im melons may have been first selected further east, simply as a beautifully ornamental and sweet-smelling ecotype, and then dispersed to neighboring Persia and from there to distant locations.
We gratefully acknowledge Abraham Lati of the University of Haifa and Diya Sa‘adi and Enas Zobadat of the A.R.O. at Newe Ya‘ar, and Dr. Yaron Serri of Zefat Academic College, Zefat, Israel, for assistance with translations from Arabic. We thank Nancy J. Ondra (www.hayefield.com) and Fran Sorin, Gardening Gone Wild (www.gardeninggonewild.com) for permission to use the photograph (Fig. 1). This research was supported in part by a grant from the Lillian Goldman Charitable Trust (New York).