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Melon plants are frost-tender annuals with soft, hairy climbing or trailing vines with tendrils, and large round to lobed leaves. Flowers are unisexual; female flowers are yellow, and around 2.5 cm (1 inch) in diameter. Fruits (pepos) vary considerably in size, shape, texture, flavors, and rind and flesh colors across the numerous cultivars, but generally weigh from 1 to 5 kilograms (2 to 11 pounds). The center of the fruit is filled with white, oblong seeds, around 1 cm long.
There are seven major groups of cultivated melon varieties (sometimes divided into ten groups, or two subspecies). Among them are the Cantalupensis group (name after Cantalupo, near Rome, where they were developed), which have sweet orange flesh and a warty rind; the Inodorous group, or winter melons, which are large, smooth-skinned, and mildly flavored, including the honeydew and casaba melons; and the Reticulatis group, netted or nutmeg melons, with sweet orange flesh (although some green-fleshed varieties have been developed) and a netted rind, including small muskmelons and Persian melons. Other groups are the Flexuosus (snake or serpent melons), Conomon (oriental pickling melons), Chito (mango melons), and Dudaim (stinking melons).
Cantaloupes, which are a good source of vitamin A and beta-carotene, are widely cultivated for commercial use in Europe. The melons often sold as cantaloupes in North America are more typically netted melons, which, along with the winter melons, are commercially grown and important in parts of the U.S., with numerous cultivars adapted to growing conditions of various regions. Snake, pickling, and mango melons, used for pickles and preserves, and stinking melons, which are ornamental and fragrant, are grown locally in Eurasia. Melons are susceptible to many serious fungal, viral, and bacterial and insect pests, which limits production.
Melons were known and cultivated in ancient times by the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, and were used as medicinals. Domestication and development of horticultural varieties was also important in India, Persia, south Russia, and China. Herbals 16th and 17th century Europe list many medicinal uses. The seeds have been used to treat intestinal parasites, but must be used with caution, as sprouting seeds produce toxic compounds. Melons are primarily eaten fresh, but in various parts of Africa, oil expressed from the seeds is used in cooking.
The term "melon" is also used to refer to a number of other species: watermelon (Citrullus vulgarism); Chinese watermelon or wax gourd (Benincasa hispida); melon shrub or pear melon (Solanum muricata); papaya, sometimes called melon tree (Carica papaya); and others.
(Encyclopedia Britanica 1993, Hedrick 1919, Kirkbride 1993, PFAF 2011, Simon et al. 1993, Whittaker and Davis 1962)