(01/10/24) A watermelon cultivar developed at the now closed LSU AgCenter Calhoun Research Station has been nominated for boarding onto the Slow Food Ark of Taste.
The Red-N-Sweet is a 1987 LSU release. Its disease resistance, dark red flesh and intense sweetness made it a regionally popular watermelon until the late 1990s, according to AgCenter horticulture agent Kerry Heafner. Then, it seemed to disappear. Until recently, all five watermelons released from the Calhoun Station were presumed functionally extinct.
In February of 2020, Heafner, who currently serves on Slow Food Ark of Taste Southeast Region Nominating Committee, was given some seeds by Lula Shurtleff of Marion, Louisiana. She believed the seeds to be of one of the Calhoun watermelons. Heafner said they turned out to be seeds of Red-N-Sweet and thus began the melon’s journey back into circulation.
“I cannot tell you how many people have either come into the office or called in asking where they can get seeds of these Calhoun melons,” Heafner said. “I’ve always had to tell them I didn’t know. Now, I can gladly tell them we have those seeds.”
The goal of the Ark of Taste is to preserve imperiled regional foods along with their traditional methods of cultivation and preparation.
Heafner shared seeds from the largest melons grown from the Shurtleff seeds in 2020 with Indian Village Harvest Farm in Ouachita Parish. The owners, William and Rebecca Cooke, grew their seeds in 2021 across the road at Belle Haven Kids Farm. All the while, two food writers from Virginia, Joshua Fitzwater and Deb Freeman, followed Heafner’s social media posts about Red-N-Sweet and drove all the way to Louisiana to see the Calhoun watermelons in person. Fitzwater and Freeman saw Calhoun Sweet, released in 1951; Calhoun Gray, released in 1965; and Red-N-Sweet.
Heafner made sure the writers returned to Viriginia with a nice Red-N-Sweet melon and plenty of seeds. Fitzwater’s father grew the seeds in 2022 in Halifax, Virginia. Their crop was shared with culinary talent around Virginia, and the seeds were shared with home gardeners as far north as Vermont.
“All five of the Calhoun melons are great and need to be in circulation again, but Red-N-Sweet stands out in terms of color and flavor,” Heafner said. “The crosses that led to this variety were started in 1972 so its development took 15 years. It’s a testament to the work of LSU vegetable and fruit breeders like Chester Taylor and Dr. Charles Johnson.”
Heafner also noted that J.C. Miller developed vegetable varieties specifically for production in the warm, humid Gulf South. “He left an incredible body work that home gardeners today need to be aware of.”
Heafner along with Marcie Wilson, also a horticulture agent in the AgCenter Northeast Region, head up the North Louisiana Seed Preservation Program. The mission is to recover and preserve as much of north Louisiana’s agricultural and culinary heritage as possible. This includes old LSU varieties.
Wilson has been able to obtain seeds of several old LSU vegetable varieties from U.S. Department of Agriculture.
While they gladly accept seeds from all over Louisiana and from other states, they emphasize the northern part of the state because, as Heafner points out, its story is different than that of much of southern Louisiana.
“Immigration into northern Louisiana was mainly from other southern states, especially Alabama and Mississippi and even Georgia. As far as I can tell, northern Louisiana is less of a multinational heritage like New Orleans and the surrounding area and is more multiregional,” Heafner said.
The Slow Food Ark of Taste Southeast Region Nominating Committee is chaired by renowned southern food historian and author David Shields. The Slow Food movement began in 1986 when an attempt to open a fast-food restaurant close to the Spanish Steps in Rome was met with peaceful protest. Other Louisiana foods boarded onto the Ark of Taste include handmade filé; the Red Creole onion; heritage Louisiana strawberries including Klondike, Daybreak and Tangi; and the mirliton, among others. Heafner feels that nominating Red-N-Sweet for boarding onto the Ark of Taste is taking another step to ensure it doesn’t slip backward toward extinction.
For more information on Slow Food USA visit www.slowfoodusa.org.
The Red-N-Sweet watermelon has dark red, sweet flesh. It was the last watermelon released from the Calhoun Research Station. Photo by Kerry D. Heafner
Kerry Heafner holds seeds of the Red-N-Sweet watermelon. The watermelon was nominated for boarding on the Slow Food Ark of Taste. Photo by Randy LaBauve/LSU AgCenter