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The Bradford Watermelon Makes a Comeback

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 35 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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Sign for Bradford Watermelon with cut melons
For more than 150 years, the Bradford family of Sumter has grown their remarkable heirloom watermelon.

Being thin-skinned isn't typically a positive, but in the case of a certain Sumter-grown watermelon, it's the sign of something special. Digging into a Bradford watermelon means juicy eating all the way through to the soft rind.

The late-harvest, thin-skinned melon has an ultra-sweet flavor profile and is considered the best of the best by the best, thereby making it the darling of chefs and melon aficionados across South Carolina and beyond.

 

Bradford Watermelon Qualities

Hand holding tiny unripe watermelon on vine
At birth, the Bradford melon looks much like any other.

Having such a delicate skin nips the Bradford's shelf-life considerably, so you won't see these oblong beauties being shipped across the country. The distinctive skin, tender rind and super sweet flesh demand immediate enjoyment. 

But that's only a wee part of what makes this variety a giant among melons. When you sink your teeth into a wedge, you're not only getting a refreshingly delicious hot weather treat, but a slice of South Carolina agricultural history.

Some of the annual harvest is also used to make fruity brandy, rich molasses and crunchy watermelon rind pickles. For those wishing to grow their own crop, seeds are available, too. Shop for Bradford watermelon products here

 

Family Watermelon Roots  

Bette and Nat Bradford holding watermelon
Bette and Nat Bradford are proud of their heirloom watermelons.

In the late 1990s, Nat happened upon an 1850s chronicle about the most prized fruits and vegetables of that time. It touted a Bradford melon from South Carolina as "the best variety." Could this be Nat's backyard watermelon? Time - 14 years' worth, to be exact - would eventually tell.

During a sleepless bout one night, the question of the Bradford melon sent Nat on an extensive internet search. That's when he found a heritage crops website on which University of South Carolina's Professor David Shields referenced the Bradford melon. Nat emailed a description of his family watermelon to Dr. Shields, who excitedly responded with "I've been looking for this!"

Nat learned from Dr. Shields that his family's watermelon history was more extensive than he thought. It turns out that his great-grandfather, Nathaniel Bradford, bred the melon and shared the seeds. The fruit was a hit, with some folks who successfully cultivated seeds having to arm themselves or booby trap their fields to thwart melon thieves.

But the arrival of thick-skinned watermelons with tough, hard rinds meant lengthier shelf lives for shipping and more profits for growers. In 1922, the final commercial Bradford watermelon crop was harvested and soon forgotten by just about everyone but the Bradford family.

 

Bradford Watermelon Encore

Children hoeing and weeding watermelon crop and cornfield
A new generation of Bradfords works the fields of the family operation.

Today, Nat continues to farm the family land, growing hundreds of Bradford melons as well as okra, collards and other heirloom crops. He and Bette have six children who also help tend the fields and assist with other chores.

The Bradford variety might not be the hardiest of watermelons, but it is a versatile fruit. While the cream of the crop meets the demand of chefs and small markets, some melons are used to make rich molasses and crunchy, spiced rind pickles. Seeds are available for those interested in growing their own melons. Nat offers cultivating advice on his website, but warns that results are heavily dependent on soil and other conditions.

Harvest happens in late summer - the melon takes exactly 85 days to ripen and is usually ready sometime in August when other watermelons growers are packing it up. Check the Bradford Watermelon Facebook page for information on availability.

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 35 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.