(07/16/20) MONROE, La. — It can be hard to find a Southerner who doesn’t like a mouth-watering, sweet, juicy watermelon. Some recently rediscovered LSU varieties could make the experience even sweeter.
During the past year, LSU AgCenter horticulture agent Kerry Heafner has been in search of vegetable varieties developed at the now-closed Calhoun Research Station in Ouachita Parish, also called the LSU North Louisiana Experiment Station. The station was established in 1888 and closed in 2011.
Several varieties of field pea, peaches and watermelon were developed at the station.
“Since John Coykendall spoke at our Master Gardener seminar last year, I’ve been getting questions about where to find seeds of some of these Calhoun varieties,” Heafner said.
Coykendall is the master gardener at Blackberry Farm Resort near Knoxville, Tennessee, and is a legendary seed saver. He was the focus of the Louisiana Public Broadcasting documentary “Deeply Rooted: John Coykendall’s Journey to Save Our Seeds and Stories.”
One LSU variety still in demand is the Calhoun Sweet watermelon, a 1951 release from the station that many local residents still remember as one of the sweetest watermelons available.
“The Calhoun Sweet is a round, dark-green, Black Diamond-type melon that was bred for resistance to Fusarium wilt. Its thin rind made it great for local markets, but it couldn’t withstand long distance shipping,” Heafner said.
Heafner, with the help of a few contacts, recently located the Calhoun Sweet being grown by a Lincoln Parish farmer, who kindly shared seeds and growing information with Heafner.
“I’ve been talking with a local small farm about growing these seeds out next year,” Heafner said. “A lot of people remember this watermelon and still ask for it.”
The Red-N-Sweet watermelon was a 1987 release from the Calhoun Station. Heafner is growing it this year from seeds given to him in February after giving a presentation to the Marion Garden Club in Union Parish. A lady had obtained her seeds from a now-deceased AgCenter agent.
“There were seeds collected in 2001, 2003 and 2006, and they had been in her freezer all of this time,” Heafner said. “So, I took 10 seeds from each year, put them between layers of wet paper towels and sure enough, they germinated.”
Red-N-Sweet is living up to its name. It has a dark, vermillion red flesh and, so far, Brix sugar levels are 12 to 13. Larger melons are 30 to 38 pounds.
“I’m finding that these nearly gone LSU varieties, including the Calhoun purplehull pea, are still in demand, and I would like to get as many of them as possible back into circulation. I want our local culinary talent, which is considerable, to know these varieties, as well,” Heafner said. “The Calhoun Station is gone now, and it would be so easy to just let the work that went on there slip into history and be forgotten.”
“We shouldn’t let that happen,” he added. “These nearly gone varieties are part of the agricultural heritage of not only this region, but of the whole state of Louisiana.”
Red-N-Sweet watermelon was developed at the now-closed LSU AgCenter Calhoun Research Station in Ouachita Parish. There is a new push to bring this and other nearly gone varieties back. Photo by Kerry Heafner/LSU AgCenter
Inside view of the Red-N-Sweet watermelon developed at the now-closed LSU AgCenter Calhoun Research Station in Ouachita Parish. Photo by Kerry Heafner/LSU AgCenter
The Calhoun purplehull pea is one of several field peas developed at the now-closed LSU AgCenter Calhoun Research Station in Ouachita Parish. Photo by Kerry Heafner/LSU AgCenter