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Citrullus lanatus (watermelon)

Watermelon has long been valued for its refreshing fruits, which have also been used as an ingredient in cosmetics.
A lady from a community in Botswana holding a watermelon

A local woman in Botswana holding a watermelon.

Species information

Scientific name: 

Citrullus lanatus (Thunb.) Matsum. & Nakai

Common name: 

watermelon, wild watermelon, sweet melon (English); egusi melon (English, Kenya); pastèque, melon d’eau (French).

Conservation status: 

Least Concern in South Africa according to IUCN Red List criteria; widespread in cultivation.


Grassland and bushland, often along watercourses.

Key Uses: 

Food and drink.

Known hazards: 

Some people experience an allergic reaction on ingestion of watermelon, including swelling of the mouth and throat.


Genus: Citrullus

About this species

Watermelon is a member of the cucurbit family (Cucurbitaceae), which includes cucumbers (Cucumis sativus), melons (Cucumis melo, for example), loofahs (Luffa species), and pumpkins and squashes (Cucurbita species). The generic name Citrullus is the diminutive of Citrus, perhaps referring to the spherical fruit. The specific epithet lanatus (meaning woolly) refers to dense woolly hairs on young parts of the plants, particularly stems.

Citrullus lanatus is widely cultivated for its edible fruits, which are also an important source of water in arid regions of Africa. It is thought that watermelon was first domesticated in central and southern Africa. Watermelon seeds and leaves have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs, suggesting it was cultivated there more than 5,000 years ago. Having been cultivated for so long, its origins are unknown, but it is thought that it may have been selected from Citrullus colocynthis (known as ‘bitter colocynth’; a bitter, poisonous perennial) in early African agriculture.

Wild, unselected forms tend to bear bitter fruit, due to the presence of cucurbitacin (a biochemical compound used for defence against herbivores) and hence are normally only fed to cattle.



Anguria citrullus Mill., Citrullus amarus Schrad., Citrullus anguria (Duchesne) H.Hara (a full list of synonyms is available on The Plant List)


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