Citrullus lanatus

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Name: Citrullus lanatus (Thunb.) Matsum. & Nakai

Family: Cucurbitaceae (the Gourd family)

Common Names:  Watermelon, wild watermelon, egusi melon, West African watermelon, dessert watermelon, cooking melon, fodder melon, preserving melon, citron, melancia (Portuguese), pastèque (French) (1,6,8,9).

Etymology: The word Citrullus is the diminutive of the Greek word citrus, referring to the fruit sometimes called ‘citron’. The species name lanatus in Latin means “woolly”, referring to the plant’s pubescence (4,5).

Citrullus lanatus from Russia

Botanical synonyms (2):
Citrullus caffer Schrad.,C. citrullus (L.) H. Karst.,C. colocynthis var. lanatus (Thunb.) Matsum. & Nakai,
C. edulis Spach,
C. pasteca Sageret,
C. vulgaris Schrad.,
Colocynthis amarissima Schltdl.,
Colocynthis amarissima Schrad.,
Colocynthis citrullus (L.) Kuntze,
Colocynthis citrullus Fritsch,
Cucumis citrullus (L.) Ser.,
Cucumis colocynthis Thunb.,
Cucumis laciniosus Eckl. ex Schrad.,
Cucurbita anguria Duchesne ex Lam.,
Cucurbita caffra Eckl. & Zeyh.,
Cucurbita citrullus L.,civu3_001_lhp Momordica lanata Thunb.

Quick Notable Features (8,11):
¬ Trailing, pubescent, monoecious plant
¬ Simple toothed leaves, alternate, pinnately lobed
¬ Male and female flowers solitary, with a villous calyx and yellow corolla
¬ Large, round to oblong fleshy berries, most commonly green

Plant Height: Watermelons grow to 0.5m tall (7).

Subspecies/varieties recognized (2): C. lanatus var. albidus Maheshw., C. lanatus var. caffer (Schrad.) Mansf. ex Fursa, C. lanatus var. caffrorum (Alef.) Fosberg, C. lanatus var. capensis (Alef.) Fursa, C. lanatus var. citroides (L.H. Bailey) Mansf., C. lanatus var. cordophanus (Ter-Avan.) Fursa, C. lanatus var. fistulosus Babu, C. lanatus var. minor Maheshw., C. lanatus var. oblongus Maheshw., C. lanatus var. pulcherrimus Maheshw., C. lanatus var. pumilus Maheshw., C. lanatus var. rotundus Maheshw., C. lanatus var. senegalicus Fursa, C. lanatus var. shami Maheshw., C. lanatus var. variegates Maheshw., C. lanatus var. virgatus Maheshw., C. lanatus var. viridis Maheshw., C. lanatus subsp. colocynthoides, C. lanatus subsp. cordophanus Ter-Avan., C. lanatus subsp. lanatus, C. lanatus subsp. mucosospermus Fursa, C. lanatus subsp. vulgaris (Schrad.) Fursa.

Most Likely Confused with: Cucurbita foetidissima, Cucurbita maxima, Cucurbita pepo, Cucumis melo, Cucumis sativus.

Habitat Preference: Aside from cultivated land, C. lanatus grows on disturbed sites, landfills, shores, and sewage plant fill. It thrives in well-drained, sandy loam soils and is shade intolerant (1,7,8).

Geographic Distribution in Michigan: The watermelon was collected mostly in coastal counties: Alpena, Baraga, Berrien, Cheboygan, Monroe, Wayne, and Oakland (1).

Known Elevational Distribution: C. lanatus grows up to 2000m above sea level in Africa (8).36_19

Complete Geographic Distribution: Native to southern Africa (1,8), C. lanatus was introduced to Mediterranean Africa, the Middle East, West Asia, and possibly India before 1000 BC. It arrived in China ca. 900 AD and Japan in the 1500’s (8). It was taken to Brazil by Africans in the 1700’s (14). In the United States it was introduced after colonization (8), and is currently found escaped from cultivation in AL, AR, AZ, CA, CT, FL, GA, IL, IN, KS, KY, LA, MA, MD, ME, MI, MO, MS, NC, NJ, NM, NV, NY, OH, PA, RI, SC, TN, TX, UT, VA, VT, WI, WV, and also in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands (6). The species is cultivated worldwide in tropical and subtropical regions (8).

Vegetative Plant Description: C. lanatus is an annual plant with long pubescent, trailing, branched stems that grow up to 5m long, from a deep taproot. Stipules are absent, and the plant bears axillary tendrils that are bifid, puberulent, and coiled. The alternate, simple leaves are 5-7cm apart on the stems and have pubescent petioles 2-14cm long. Each leaf is pinnately lobed at least to half its length, long pubescent, glaucous, ovate to deltoid, basally cordate, 4-25cm long and 3-19cm broad. The sinuses of the lobes are rounded, and the margins are toothed (1,8,10,11,18).citron_watermelon

Climbing Mechanism: The watermelon uses its tendrils to climb over structures or other vegetation (8,11).

Flower Description: C. lanatus is monoecious (separate male and female flowers on the same plant) and its axillary flowers are solitary and actinomorphic, on 1.5-4cm long pedicels. Both staminate and pistillate flowers have a villous campanulate calyx with 5 narrow lobes 0.2-0.3cm long, and a 5-parted yellow corolla 2-3.5cm across. Pistillate flowers are slightly larger than staminate. Staminate flowers bear three nearly free stamens and a gland resembling an ovary. Pistillate flowers have 3 staminodes, a villous, ovoid, unilocular inferior ovary 0.5-0.8cm long, topped by a short style with 3 stigmas (8,10,11).

Flowering Time: The blooming period of the watermelon is July-August (7). Each flower only remains open only for a few hours, from dawn to early afternoon (9).

Pollinator: C. lanatus is autogamous as well as open-pollinated by insects (7,8). In the U.S., watermelon crops are mostly pollinated by honey bees (Apis mellifera), but also by wild bees, flies, and beetles that are attracted by the nectar produced in both male and female flowers. The wild wmgn-stripe1000bees have been identified as members of the genera Agapostemon, Augochlora, Augochlorella, Augochloropsis, Bombus, Calliopsis, Ceratina, Halictus, Hylaeus, Lasioglossum, Megachile, Melissodes, Peponapis, Ptilothrix, Triepeolus, and Xylocopa (9,15).

Fruit Type and Description: Each female flower produces one round to oblong berry that can be various shades of green and/or yellow, white, striped, mottled, or evenly colored, with a smooth surface. The flesh of the watermelon can be greenish white, or yellow to red, and can be juicy and sweet (common watermelon), neither sweet nor bitter (cooking melon), or very bitter (egusi melon). A watermelon can be 5-70cm long and weigh up to 30kg; the egusi melon is smaller than the common watermelon. The berries have many seeds, or none in the case of the triploid hybrid seedless watermelon (8,10,12).

Seed Description: Like the fruit, the ovate seeds appear in many colors: white, yellow to brown, black, or mottled. The seeds are smooth, flat, 0.5-1.8cm long, 0.3-1.1cm at the broadest point, and 1000 seeds weigh 60-150g. They do not require a dormancy period, remain viable for up to 10 years, and germinate epigealy (8,10,11).

Dispersal Syndrome: The fruit is consumed by animals that then spread its seeds, and are also dispersed by water. Since C. lanatus is a widely cultivated species, its spread throughout the world is credited to its agricultural acceptance (8,14,16).Watermelons

Distinguished by: Members of the genera Cucurbita and Cucumis have unlobed or palmately lobed leaves, while C. lanatus has pinnately lobed leaves. The flowers of Cucurbita (>5cm across) are larger than the flowers of C. lanatus (<3.5cm across). Cucurbita foetidissima has deltoid leaves with very few and shallow lobes, the plant smells foul when brushed against. C. lanatus has deeply lobed leaves and does not smell foul. Cucurbita maxima and Cucurbita pepo leaves are broader than long, not the case in C. lanatus, and the fruits are different types of squash and may not have the round to oblong shape of C. lanatus.  Cucurbita maxima has unlobed leaves, the pedicels of staminate flowers are long (10-20cm long) while those of C. lanatus are relatively short (0.5-4cm long).  Cucurbita pepo has palmately lobed leaves, and the fruits mature as zucchini, squash, or pumpkin. Cucumis melo and Cucumis sativus have unbranched tendrils, while tendrils are bifid in C. lanatus, and the leaves are as broad as long in the former species but longer than broad in C. lanatus. Cucumis melo staminate flowers may be grouped or solitary, while C. lanatus flowers are always solitary. The fruit of C. melo are different well-known varieties of melon, including cantaloupe, and they can be pubescent during early development. Cucumis sativus, the cucumber, has fascicled staminate flowers and fascicled or solitary pistillate flowers, and it has a warty fruit, which is smooth in C. lanatus (1,11).

Other members of the family in Michigan (number species): Cucumis (2), Cucurbita (3), Echinocystis (1), Sicyos (1), Thladiantha (1) (source 1).civu3_003_lhp

Ethnobotanical Uses: The watermelon fruit is widely consumed and rich in water and pectin.  Pectin is a substance used in jams for thickening and is believed to offer protection from radiation. The fruit is used to aid treatment of edema and kidney stones, as a diuretic, and to prevent heart attacks (contains lycopine). When mature, they are used as fever reducer. The leaves and seeds can be consumed once they are cooked. The seeds can also be consumed raw and made into flour or fermented to make a sweetener called ogiri or igbãlo (made from another process). The pharmaceutical industry uses a vegetable oil extracted from the seeds to make cosmetics, or the oil can simply be used for cooking; the byproduct can be prepared fried, or given to cattle. The seeds are mucoprotective, diuretic, tonic, and used to expel intestinal worms. The rind aids in regulating blood sugar levels to treat diabetes and alcohol poisoning, and can be made into pickles or jam. The roots induce vomiting and are purgative. Seedlings are toxic and should not be consumed (7,8).

CUCUCitrulluslanatusMAPPhylogenetic Information: The genus Citrullus is included in the tribe Benincaseae in the subfamily Cucurbitoideae (8) of the Cucurbitaceae family, which is in the Cucurbitales order, part of the Rosid I clade of Core Eudicots. Six other families are part of the order Cucurbitales: Anisophylleaceae, Corynocarpaceae, Coriariaceae, Tetramelaceae (closest to Cucurbitaceae), Datiscaceae, and Begoniaceae. Members of the Cucurbitaceae are found in tropical, subtropical, and warm temperate climates throughout the world and are very important economically. The family also includes pumpkin, squash, melon, and cucumber (3). The genus Citrullus includes four species, all native to arid regions of Africa and Eurasia: C. colocynthis, C. lanatus, C. rehmii, and C. ecirrhosus (5). C. lanatus and C. colocynthis probably evolved from a common ancestor about 2 Myr ago (13).

Interesting Quotation or Other Interesting Factoid not inserted above:  In 2002, the world production of watermelon was 81 million tons, of which 57 million tons were produced in China. The edible portion of the fruit of the traditional watermelon is about 91.5% water (8). Seedless watermelons last longer than those with seeds “because of reduced enzymatic action in the flesh at the area of the undeveloped seed.” (12). Additionally, seedless watermelons (triploids) have sterile staminate flowers, therefore it is necessary to plant diploid plants nearby to ensure pollination and fruit production (8). In Japan, the production of square watermelons started in 2001 in order to save space in the refrigerator. The square watermelons are grown by placing a regular developing watermelon inside an acrylic box, and as it grows, it conforms to the shape of the box (17).

Literature and websites used:

  1. Michigan Flora Online. A.A. Reznicek, E.G. Voss, & B.S. Walters. February 2011. University of Michigan. Web. April 4, 2013.
  2. Missouri Botanical Garden. 04 Apr 2013 <>
  3. Stevens, P.F. Angiosperm Phylogeny Website. Version 12, July 2012.
  4. Mahoney, K. 2002-2013. Latdic.
  5. Montesinos, E. 2012. The watermelon (Citrullus lanatus). University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
  6. USDA, NRCS. 2013. The PLANTS Database (, 04/04/2013). National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC 27401-4901 USA.
  7. Plants For A Future, 1996-2012. Accessed: 04 April 2013.
  8. Grubben, G.J.H. 2004. Plant Resources of Tropical Africa: Vegetables (PROTA 2), Vol. 2. PROTA. Accessed on Google Books.
  9. Winfree, R., N.M. Williams, H. Gaines, J.S. Ascher, & C. Kremen 2008. Wild bee pollinators provide the majority of crop visitation across land-use gradients in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, USA. Journal of Applied Ecology 45: 793–802.
  10. Lomova, E.I. & N.V. Terekhina 2003-2009. Citrullus lanatus (Thunb.) Mansf. – Water-melon. Interactive Agricultural Ecological Atlas of Russia and Neighboring Countries. Economic Plants and their Diseases, Pests and Weeds.
  11. Lu, A. & C. Jeffrey 2011. Flora of China, Vol. 19: 1. Cucurbitaceae.
  12. Andrus, C.F., V.S. Seshadri, & P.C. Grimball 1971. Production of seedless watermelons. USDA Technical Bulletin No. 1425. Accessed on Google Books.
  13. Schaefer, H., C. Heibl, & S.S. Renner 2009. Gourds afloat: a dated phylogeny reveals an Asian origin of the gourd family (Cucurbitaceae) and numerous oversea dispersal events. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 276(1658): 843-851.
  14. Romão, R.L. 2000. Northeast Brazil: A secondary center of diversity for watermelon (Citrullus lanatus). Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 47(2): 207-213.
  15. Njoroge, G.N., B. Gemmill, R. Bussmann, L.E. Newton, & V.W. Ngumi 2004. Pollination ecology of Citrullus lanatus at Yatta, Kenya. International Journal of Tropical Insect Science 24(1): 73-77.
  16. Cappers, J.R.T. 1993. Seed dispersal by water: a contribution to the interpretation of seed assemblages. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 2(3): 173-186.
  17. Banholzer, W.F. & L.J. Vosejpka 2011. Risk taking and effective R&D management. Annual Review of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering 2: 173-188.
  18. Zomlefer, W.B. 1994. Guide to Flowering Plant Families. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Image Credits (all used with permission):
1. Image of habit and fruit courtesy of Drs. Yuri Lee and Natalia Terekhina, from
2. Image of flowers from Richard A. Howard Image Collection, courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.
3. Image of male and female flowers cut in half courtesy of D.L. Nickrent & K.R. Robertson
4. Image of citron watermelon © Trade Winds Fruits,
5. Image of fruit varieties © Todd C. Wehner
6. Image of watermelons courtesy of Steve Evans
7. Image of seeds courtesy of Carole Ritchie @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
8. Species distribution map, derived from the Michigan Flora Online.

Primary Author: Cristine V. Santanna and John Bradtke, with revisions and editing by Robyn J. Burnham.

© Robyn J. Burnham

For additional information on Michigan Plant Diversity species accounts, please contact Robyn J. Burnham via email: rburnham“at”