In South Carolina, the watermelon is called the “smile fruit,” but it’s actually not a fruit. It’s a vegetable! Like cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, and cantaloupes, the watermelon is really a member of the gourd family.

The Spanish explorers, the first to come to South Carolina in the early part of the16th century, found melons in the native Indian culture. By the1700s and 1800s, the plantation owners were producing watermelons for their own consumption. During the hot, sweltering South Carolina summers, the plantation gentry traveled to their coastal homes or to their pineland villages away from the “deadly swamp air.” The lack of fresh water by the ocean and the possibility of transmitting disease through the water system led people to consume great amounts of watermelons. At that time, the watermelon, which contains 90% water, served as a source for water, staple food, animal feed, and fermentation for alcohol production.

The 1935 State Department of Agriculture Year Book reported that “The Carolina watermelon, though later than those farther south, is a better shipper and a more delicious fruit; also the yield is higher. The crop is ready for shipment in July, and a yield of 500 melons per acre . . . is the average.” Today, growers begin to harvest in late May and end in August.

Many varieties of watermelons are produced in South Carolina—from red to yellow meat, striped or solid, round to elliptical, and seeded or seedless. Because consumers want convenience, icebox watermelons, weighing only 5-10 pounds, have become increasingly popular, because they are more efficient and easier to handle.

South Carolina watermelon growers know when their watermelons are ripe. To determine maturity, growers use a hand refractometer to measure the sweetness of the melon. But, there are other ways to determine if a watermelon is ripe. If the melon has a pale yellow underside, a brown melon tendril, a change in sound when thumped (from a metallic ringing sound to a soft hollow sound), a break-up of green bands at the blossom end, and development of ribbed indentations that can be felt with the fingertips, the watermelon is ripe and ready.

South Carolina watermelons—nothing is more apt to raise a smile.