Guest Post by David Shields
A lost treasure of American horticulture has surfaced in Sumter, South Carolina. Preserved by eight generations of the Bradford family, the Bradford Watermelon, a ridged dark gray green red fleshed watermelon with white seeds and splendid taste thrives in the family patch in much the same form as the cultivar perfected by Nathaniel Bradford in the late 1840s. Long thought lost—the Bradford was one of four legendary watermelons—the Lawson, the Ravenscroft, the Long Carolina (Mountain Sprout), and the Bradford—held out as paragons of taste and form during antebellum times. Despite their splendid qualities, all had vanished from the fields of the south by the early twentieth century.
The Bradford was last planted in the fields of Richmond County, Georgia, as a commercial crop in 1922. It lasted longer than any of the other legendary early melons. But it too gave way to later breeds, with tougher rinds for railroad shipping, longer keeping power, and resistance to disease. No longer maintained by seed companies, and only kept viable by a group of devotees who saved seed, a group that aged and died over the course of the 20th century. Finally it grew in only one patch outside of Sumter, planted year after year by successive generations of Bradfords unbeknownst to the rest of the world.
The Bradford Melon was created during the great age of experimental horticulture in the South—from 1830 to 1860. A group of farmer/plant breeders tried to wrest the natural promiscuity of plants of the melon-squash-cucumber family, creating varieties that took the sugar content well beyond the 9 percent level attained at the end of the 18th century. They refined the melon’s taste a texture, enhancing the crispness of the flesh, and overcoming a tendency for the melon to form a hollow heart. They sought productivity and a standard shape. The Lawson melon, developed from the seed of a melon fed to W. B. Lawson on a British prison ship in the West Indies during the Revolution, has wonderful sweetness and delicacy, but set few fruit a vine, and those often dumpy in shape. The Lawson was crossed with the Long Carolina to form the Rattlesnake Melon, the first famous truck farming melon of the south, and the signature melon of Georgia during Reconstruction. Nathaniel Bradford had bred productivity and uniform long shape into his melon.
In the 1850s he began distributing seed through the horticultural circles. Some came to Col. Adam Summer, the leading livestock farmer of the south, and brother to the pomologist and horticulturist William Summer of Pomaria Nursery. Adam Summer crossed the Bradford with the Mountain Sweet (the north’s favorite market melon) to form the Ravenscroft. When horticulturist William Brinkle of Pennsylvania asked the Summers Brothers for good quality watermelon seed to distributed to the agricultural community of the of the north, they forwarded seeds in 1855 for six varieties: The Bradford, Ravenscroft, Souter’s, Odell’s White, Clarendon, and Pomaria. Only the Bradford received widespread adoption. Careless maintenance of the seed led to the contamination of the varieties in the north. The Bradford, however, remained a true breed in SC, GA, AL, and FL. Seed companies rebranded it under other names: The Alabama Sweets, the Pearson. But the public knew it as the Bradford.
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.