Exhibit A: the North American cantaloupe.
Exhibit B: the honeydew melon.
Recently, I got curious about these two. Is the honeydew melon a type of cantaloupe? Or vice versa? Or are they completely separate species? What, in short, is the deal?
I fired up Google, expecting an answer in thirty seconds or less. What I found, instead, was a subject of astonishing confusion and complexity.
Part of the trouble is terminology. For instance: “muskmelon” can be either a synonym for “cantaloupe,” or a larger group that includes both cantaloupe and honeydew. Honeydew melons are also said to be a type of “winter melon,” but “winter melon” can also refer to an entirely unrelated Asian fruit. Even “cantaloupe” is confusing, because what Americans call a cantaloupe is different than the so-called “true” cantaloupe, also known as the European cantaloupe. Oh, and apparently “honeydew” is also an alternate name for cantaloupe.
You see the problem.
Let’s talk science. Botanists have official, unambiguous scientific names for everything, right? That should clear up the confusion.
Well, cantaloupe (both North American and European) and honeydew all belong to the same species: Cucumis melo. So they’re different subgroups of the same species. That’s good to know. But what kind of subgroups, exactly? And do they overlap?
Well, what are the biological taxonomic levels below species?
Turns out, it depends which kingdom you’re in. We’re talking about the plant kingdom – botany – and there, the taxonomic levels below species (the so-called “infraspecific” levels) are:
So honeydews and cantaloupes are both Cucumis melo, but different subspecies, maybe? Or different varieties?
Wiki gives the subspecies of cantaloupe as “C. melo subsp. melo.” This terminology is known as a trinomial name, because it includes three names: the genus (Cucumis, here abbreviated “C.”), the species, “melo,” and the subspecies, which is also called “melo.” The connecting word – “subsp.” – indicates that the third name is a subspecies, as opposed to a variety or form.
So the cantaloupe is Cucumis melo subsp. melo. That cover subspecies. What about variety?
Wiki has us covered there, too. The variety is “Cucumis melo var. cantalupensis” – but it also gives the variety as “Cucumis melo var. reticulatus.” What’s going on there? Why two names?
Wiki doesn’t say, but further research reveals that North American cantaloupes belong to C. melo var. reticulatus, whereas European or “true” cantaloupes belong to C. melo var. cantalupensis.
Cool! What about honeydews?
Wiki defines the honeydew melon as part of a “cultivar group” of Cucumis melo – specifically, the “inodorus” group. What in the world does that mean? We know about species, subspecies, variety, and form, but cultivar group is new.
A cultivar, I have learned, is a type of plant cultivated (usually by humans) for a specific characteristic. A cultivar group is, well, all the plants that belong to a particular cultivar. Logical enough, but where does “cultivar group” fit in with the taxonomy we’ve learned so far?
Turns out, the subspecies/variety/form stuff is all cooked up by the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants, or ICN. Cultivar groups, on the other hand, are handled by the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants, or ICNCP. That’s why the terms don’t match up – they’re governed by different organizations. A cultivar group can match up with any level of the ICN taxonomy from genus on down.
After doing yet more research, I think – I think – that cantalupensis, reticulatus, and inodorus are all varieties (in ICN-speak) and cultivar groups (in ICNCP-speak). In other words:
- The North American cantaloupe belongs to species Cucumis melo, subspecies melo, variety reticulatus, which is also cultivar group reticulatus.
- The European or “true” cantaloupe belongs to species Cucumis melo, subspecies melo, variety cantalupensis, which is also cultivar group cantalupensis.
- The honeydew melon belongs to species Cucumis melo, subspecies melo, variety inodorus, which is also cultivar group inodorus.
Neat and tidy, more or less. The only thing that still bothers me is that inodorus doesn’t mean honeydew, it’s just a group that the honeydew belongs to. (Other members of inodorus include crenshaws and casabas.) Likewise for the two types of cantaloupes.
So what, precisely, is the official or scientific status of the North American cantaloupe, the European cantaloupe, and the honeydew melon? Is there any? Or do those terms belong strictly to the vernacular? That, sadly, I’ve been unable to determine, despite my best efforts. In the unlikely event that anyone knows, I’d love to hear from you.
And in the even-more-unlikely event that you’ve kept reading through all of this, congratulations! Hope it made sense. And yes, I am quite, quite mad.