This Super-Sweet Watermelon Has a Deadly History

Today, watermelons rank near the bottom of desirable fruit salad components. But there once existed a strain so delicious that people risked their lives to get their hands on one.

The origin of the legendary Bradford watermelon can be traced back to the American Revolutionary War. A military officer named John Franklin Lawson was captured by the British army in 1783 and shipped off to the West Indies by boat. While he was aboard the prison ship, he received a sweet slice of watermelon from the vessel's Scottish captain. The fruit was so delectable that he held onto every seed until he was finally able to return to his home in Georgia and plant them.

The new type of watermelon he cultivated was dubbed the Lawson, and around 1840, Nathaniel Napoleon Bradford of Sumter County, South Carolina, cross-bred the watermelon with the Mountain Sweet variety. This marked the beginning of the Bradford watermelon, which by the 1860s would gain notoriety as the one of the South’s most sought-after watermelons.

Melon connoisseurs prized the Bradford for its sweet, fragrant flesh and soft rind, so tender that it could be pierced with a butter knife. People boiled its sugary juice to make molasses and distilled it into brandy. Its brix rating, the system used to quantify sugar content, measured in at 12.5. An average melon falls closer to a 10, which is already considered quite sweet.  

Any farmers who were lucky enough to lay claim to these remarkable melons needed to take extra precautions to protect them. Some growers camped out in their watermelon patches with guns, ready to scare away any pillagers who might visit in the night. Others poisoned a select handful of watermelons and posted signs warning thieves to “pick at their own risk.” In some cases, this plan backfired when farmers confused the deadly watermelons for the safe ones, inadvertently poisoning their families and themselves.

As electricity gained popularity in America in the late 19th century, creative farmers began hooking up their melons to wires as a way to deter thieves. When watermelon bandits reached down to collect their bounty, they’d be greeted with a nasty shock. According to Dr. David Shields of the University of South Carolina, with the exception of cattle rustlers and horse thieves, more people were killed in watermelon patches than in any other part of the American agricultural landscape. 

Despite the initial mania surrounding it, the Bradford watermelon fell out of popularity in the 20th century. Its soft, oblong exterior made it difficult to stack and ship long distances, and in 1922 the last commercial crop was planted. The melon would have disappeared completely if it wasn’t for members of the Bradford family who continued to grow them in their backyards and save the seeds season after season. Now, the melon is finally poised to make a comeback. After learning about his sixth great-granddaddy’s agricultural legacy, Nat Bradford resolved to expand the tiny watermelon field his family had been cultivating for over a century. In the summer of 2013, they grew 465 of the watermelons and this past summer were aiming to grow 1000. Molasses and pickled rinds made from the melons are currently for sale on their website, but the seeds themselves are sold out, which means you'll have to be patient—or get creative. Just don't take any cues from the melon pillagers of the past.

David McNew/Getty Images
How Colorful Stripes of Wildflowers Could Reduce the Need for Pesticides
David McNew/Getty Images
David McNew/Getty Images

The UK is emerging as a global leader in the effort to reduce our dependency on pesticides. In November 2017, the nation moved to restrict a class of pesticide that’s deadly to bees, and now 15 farms across the country are testing a natural supplement to the chemicals. As The Guardian reports, colorful strips of wildflowers have been planted among crops as a way to combat pests.

The floral stripes add vibrant pops of color to the farmland, but they’re not there for show. By planting wildflowers in the fields, farmers hope to attract predatory insects like hoverflies, parasitic wasps, and ground beetles. These are exactly the type of bugs farmers want flocking to their property: They don’t eat crops and instead prey on the insects that do. With more natural predators to control pest populations, farmers may be able to reduce their use of harmful pesticides.

The wildflower strategy isn’t entirely new. Farmers already knew that planting borders of wildflowers around their fields is an effective way to lure in good insects, but this method still leaves the center of their farms vulnerable. By dispersing flowers throughout the area, they can broaden the predatory insects’ range.

The 15 farms planted with wildflowers last fall are part of a trial run put together by the Center for Ecology and Hydrology. The organization will monitor the farms for five years to see if the experiment really is a viable alternative to pesticides. In the meantime, farmers will have plenty of room to plant and harvest as usual, with the flower beds only taking up 2 percent of their land. The selected flowers include oxeye daisy, red clover, common knapweed, and wild carrot.

There's a long list of reasons for farmers to phase out chemical pesticides, from the damage they do to local wildlife to the threat they pose to our own health. As lawmakers around the world begin to crack down on them, you can expect to see more natural alternatives gain attention.

[h/t The Guardian]

Exploding Pants Were a Problem in 1930s New Zealand

Liars apparently aren’t the only ones who should be concerned with having their pants catch fire. In 1930s New Zealand, a series of events conspired to threaten farmers’ trousers with spontaneous and lethal combustion.

According to Atlas Obscura, the problem stemmed from ragwort, a nuisance weed of European origin that began popping up in New Zealand in the late 1800s. Ragwort, or Jacobaea vulgaris, looks not unlike a dandelion but is far more harmful: Horses and cows react to it as a poison. With the rise of dairy farming in the country and a concurrent rise in grazing cows who knew better than to eat it, ragwort started proliferating.

To respond to the invasive species, farmers took up the Department of Agriculture’s suggestion to use sodium chlorate as an herbicide. It worked, but what the farmers failed to understand was that sodium chlorate was extremely flammable. With a fine mist of the stuff drying on pants and overalls, they were prone to bursting into flames when exposed to heat—like a fireplace where pants might be hung to dry. Among the victims was Richard Buckley, who described just such an incident and witnessed, as one research journal put it, “a string of detonations in his pants.”

Friction could apparently do the trick, too, with farmers on horseback finding that all that jostling could lead to a fiery result. Lighting a match to smoke or just to see in the dark could also be calamitous. A handful of deaths were reported, as these poor laborers were essentially turning themselves into unwitting Molotov cocktails.

Word eventually spread of sodium chlorate’s hazards and it fell out of favor. Ragwort continues to annoy the population of New Zealand.


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