The melon (egusi) plant which comes from cucurbit species (family Cucurbitaceae) is a vine with climbing and creeping habits. Its leaves are deeply lobed, blue-gray in colour, innately dissected yetalternately arranged, slightly scabrid, denticulate and about 24 centimetres long.
Melon crop plays important roles in the farming system, nutritional requirements and economic well-being of West African rural dwellers.
Melon has many health benefits which make it an important staple in the average Nigerian diet. One of these benefits is its protein content which makes it an excellent nutrition source.
In fact, 40 per cent of the seed is made up of protein. Other components of melon seeds include palmitic, stearic, linoleic and oleic acids which are essential in protecting the heart.
Aside being a good source of protein, oil is sometimes extracted from its seeds. This is used in cooking and is sometimes processed into salad oil. The seed too is occasionally exported to Europe for processing into vegetable oil.
Usually, the melon plant is grown alone. At times it is grown in unused spaces around the fields, such as banks and bunds. But mostly it is interspersed among other crops, a combination commonly appreciated because its plants take care of weeds.
As a farmer interested in cultivating the melon (egusi) plant, the following would serve as helpful guidelines.
Melon survives on impoverished sites and in forest clearings, as well as in some of the most climatically challenged locales. And wherever it grows the plant blankets the soil and helps protect the land.
As the melon plant grows well in soft soil, clumps of hard soil will have to be broken down. Once it is broken down into a fine, loose mix, the soil is ready for planting.
Melon plant is not difficult to grow. Indeed, it grows so easily it could be called a farmer’s friend. Many West Africans raise it and it normally turns out good yields for them. Moreover, it is largely free of pests and diseases.
Quite remarkable is the fact that melon plants suppress weeds. After 4 weeks of growth, egusi-filled fields can be observed to be typically weed free.
The planting season for melons is between April and June, which is the start of the rainy season. Egusi grows very well in an arid climate. After preparing the land, ridges are created and the dried shelled seeds are planted on these ridges.
Generally, melons do not thrive in open flat fields. It is therefore best to plant the seeds in a place sheltered with trees, where these trees can serve as support for the climbing tendrils.
You can add organic compost to the soil prior to planting the seeds. Place 3 to 5 seeds in each hole at a depth of 2 inches. Also, spacing between seeds should be between 18 to 20 inches.
Ensure the watering of seeds regularly. Usually the seedlings appear within a week when the plant is expected to sprout. Once the seedlings are fully established, you can go ahead to add manure or organic compost.
In the absence of trees to support the climbing vine, use stakes to support the melon plant. It takes about 6 months for the plant to mature. Usually, 1 stem of melon can shoot out 5 to 15 heads with one head able to produce up to 150 seeds.
Melon (Egusi) can be inter-cropped with major crops in Nigeria including cassava, yam and maize as an additional crop in the farm. However, it should be planted in a smaller quantity because of its climbing feature so as not to disturb the main crop.
Melon gourds are usually harvested between October and December. While melon seeds can be stored for as long as possible, they are susceptible to fungal attacks from disease-causing strains of the Penicillum and Aspergillus species.
Such attacks tend to reduce seed germination and increase seed discoloration. They also reduce the nutritional benefits of the plant by producing toxic metabolites and aflatoxins.
Melons, like cucumbers, require ample supply of moisture for growth and fruit setting. However, too much water will diminish theirflavour.
When harvesting melons, you must take note of the following:
- Cut the melon from the vine instead of pulling. This is because pulling creates a cracking wound that pathogens can enter and quickly destroy the quality of the fruit, not to mention ruining its appearance.
- Don’t harvest your melons until they are fully ripe. Melons will get softer after they are picked from the vine but they will never get sweeter.
- Most people tap on the fruit and listen for a dull thump. If you grow many of them, this could be a convenient way of detecting ripeness.
- You can break the melons after harvest and leave for 1-2 weeks to allow the melons decompose before you start collecting the seeds. However, this is a very stinky process so you are encouraged to do it far away from home especially if your farm is close to your abode.
- Once the fruits stop enlarging they can be harvested. The timing, however, is not critical. Melon (Egusi)is one crop which does not demand urgency in collecting the mature fruits. Within reason, they can remain in the field for a while longer without serious loss.
Melon seeds properly stored with the shells can last for a very long period of time. They are best preserved in air-tight containers to keep out weevils and moisture. But if the melon seeds are shelled, they would not last as long, because in this state, it would be easy for them to pick up moisture and become mouldy.
Ground melon seeds should be used immediately but if stored in very cold temperatures, can last up to a month and still retain its taste.
Apart from planting, the melon (Egusi) storage business is so convenient that you don’t have to look for buyers, but rather wait for them to look for you. All you need to do is purchase, store and wait for the market price to rise before you resell and make your profit. But you must know that being a storage business, you don’t get to make an instant profit as you would have to wait for some weeks after purchase and storage before selling.
You can generate proceeds supplying melon (Egusi) to retailers in city markets. For instance, you can purchase 100kg worth of Egusi at a cheap price from village markets in the North and South West part of the country and then sell much later at a higher price to retailers in the city.