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By Dr. David Shields, SE Regional Ark of Taste Committee Chairperson

A lost treasure of American horticulture has resurfaced in Sumter, South Carolina. The Bradford Watermelon, a ridged dark gray green red-fleshed watermelon with white seeds and splendid taste, has been preserved by eight generations of the Bradford family since the late 1840’s.

It was a modern namesake of the original creator – landscape architect Nat Bradford – who called me this week, telling me that he kept the Bradford growing. I met him, reviewed his photographs against the classic description of the melon’s characteristics, and concluded he had the real deal. One of most legendary of the country’s ancestor watermelons had survived to the 21st century.

Recollections by Nat:

“At the age of ten, my two brothers and I were introduced to the Bradford Family watermelon field. My grandfather, Theron Bradford, (I’ll refer to him as my “Papa”) enlightened us on the history of our watermelons and how to plant them.

The most important thing I learned is to never, never, never let the watermelon cross with another variety. This was ensured by planting them at least a mile away from any other patch. For three generations, these watermelons rotated in one little field far away from other patches and well out of sight.

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As far as descriptions go, words cannot do justice. If you ask anyone in the family what they think about “store-bought” melons, you’ll get some variation of “never as good as a Bradford.” I will, as unbiased as I can be, admit that there is a uniqueness to our melon that I have never experienced outside of our fields.

If you placed our watermelon beside the store-bought sorts, ours might look a bit peculiar: sort of like an alien, oversized, green cucumber. It hasn’t been updated to easily accommodate the modern refrigerator… no matter how you slice it.

Any other melon I’ve had is so firm that I usually get spritzed with juice when I attempt to gouge in with a spoon. But the Bradford meat is tender, succulent and goes right through the white of the rind. The greatest of all attributes, of course, is sweetness. The Bradford is the sweetest watermelon I have eaten in my entire 37 years. It is precisely these peculiarities that I find so perfectly attractive. It’s why I’m so proud of our little melon, and why I’m so proud to be a part of its legacy.

Our little family fruit left its field and went on a journey a century and a half ago. It became popular. Then one day it slipped out of popularity and into history… save a small remnant.

This remnant continued relatively hidden in a small family field, passed on from one generation to the next, popular to the Bradford family and a handful of close friends looking forward to the next year’s bounty. I look forward to seeing where it goes next!”

The Bradford Watermelon is currently under review by Southeast Regional Committee for boarding to the Ark of Taste in the USA catalog. Know of other foods that are in danger of extinction? Nominate them for preservation and protection through the Ark of Taste.