Like the choko, this hardy, prolific melon has a sentimental place in Australian folklore
My friend Liz Gower, aka The Jam Lady, who makes lots of jams and preserves to sell at local markets, found she was being asked frequently for melon jam.
It seems melon jam, which is made from a watermelon relative called jam melon, has sentimental appeal to many older Australians. It was popular in the 1930s, 40s and 50s at a time when it and other easy-to-grow crops such as choko and Jerusalem artichoke were often found in backyard veggie patches.
Keen to keep the customers happy, Liz tried to source locally produced jam melons without luck. This summer she plans to grow her own in her Tasmanian garden.
Also called citron melons, jam melons are small and round with striped green skin and white flesh studded with reddish brown seeds. They make a sweet, transparent golden jam that sets easily due to their high pectin content. They are often combined with other fruits such as lemon, orange, passionfruit, pineapple, berries and ginger to produce a more strongly flavoured jam.
Just add sugar
My slightly faded copy of The Presbyterian Cookery Book — an Australian cookbook first published in 1895 but revised in 1950 by a Mrs McCallum — has several detailed recipes for melon jam.
One calls for “21lb citron melon, 21lb sugar, juice of 8 lemons, 3 jars of preserved ginger”. For those without imperial weights and measures at their fingertips, the measurement “lb” represents pounds. There are 2.2 pounds to a kilogram, so this recipe uses lots of sugar and melon produces a huge amount of jam.
The recipe advises dicing the melons and leaving them to stand overnight with 8lb of the sugar. The next day, place a two-shilling piece (the precursor to the 20-cent piece but with a higher silver content) at the bottom of the preserving pan with the juice of the lemons. Top with alternate layers of melon and sugar. Finally, top with pieces of chopped ginger and cook for five hours.
The recipe directs not to stir (the silver coin hopefully stops the mix catching in the pan) and concludes with the directions, “Take off the fire when quite transparent and of a clear golden colour.”
Another jam melon recipe calls for unslaked lime. The lime is mixed with boiling water and then poured off. The chopped melon is soaked overnight in the lime water which is discarded before the melon is cooked until soft for several hours and, with the addition of chopped lemon or oranges, boiled for a further four hours with lots of sugar until it sets.
The message seems to be that it takes a lot of preparation and cooking to make the melon rind and skin soft enough to eat as a jam! A slow cooker may be a better option for modern-day melon jam makers.
Growing jam melon
If you are brave enough to try to make your own melon jam, the ideal time to sow seeds to grow your own is in late spring and early summer when conditions are warm.
Although melons are subtropical in origin (they came into cultivation originally from Africa and are thought to be an ancestor of the watermelon) they can be grown anywhere with a long hot summer.
Jam melons need around 80–100 days from sowing to harvest. In cold or temperate zones, plant in spring after the last frost. If summer is slow to arrive or turns cold early, or there’s a lack of warm sunshine, the melon crop may not reach maturity in cold areas. In subtropical and tropical areas, jam melon seeds are sown between September and February.
Seeds can be sown in situ or raised in punnets or small pots to be planted out as the weather warms. This is a good way to get crops started in areas with the season may be short.
How to grow
Jam melons are part of the large cucurbit family of vegetables that also includes other summer growers such as pumpkins, cucumbers and squash. Like these plants, they have small flowers that are either male or female. Both are needed to produce a crop but it’s the female flowers that produce the fruit.
Seeds can be sown where they are to grow. Sow 50cm apart in rows 1.2–1.5m apart. Like pumpkins, jam melons can also be sown in a mound or a compost heap. Although the vine needs lots of room to spread out, these melons can be grown in raised vegetable gardens and allowed to spread over the sides of the container.
Before sowing seed, dig in compost, fertiliser or well-rotted manure as the vines need to bulk up on lots of nutrients. In areas with lots of summer rain or poorly drained soil, sow jam melons in a mound to improve drainage.
The jam melon has few pests or diseases.
Harvest & storage
Mature melons can weigh up to 5kg but may be a lot smaller. Harvest jam melons when they are heavy and sound “drummy” when tapped.
The stem where the fruit joins the vine is another indication of ripeness. When it begins to whither and comes away cleanly from the fruit, the fruit is ready to harvest.
Undamaged melons have very hard skins and can be stored in a cool place for up to 12 months. The fruit is not eaten raw but is pickled or cooked as jam or pie filling.
Fresh jam melons are available in summer or early autumn at harvest markets and roadside stalls, especially in warm areas, and seen occasionally at greengrocers. Seeds are available from online specialists including Eden Seeds (edenseeds.com.au), Green Harvest (greenharvest.com.au) and Rangeview Seeds (rangeviewseeds.com.au).
Jam melon label
Common name: Jam melon, fodder melon, citron melon, pie melon
Botanical name: Citrullus caffer syn. C. lanatus var. citroides
Family: Cucurbitaceae (watermelon or cucumber family)
Aspect & soil: Sun; well-drained soil
Habit: Annual vine
Needs: Long hot summer