For many Americans and people throughout the Northern Hemisphere, June 1 marks the beginning of summer, even if the summer solstice is a few weeks away. And nothing says summer like watermelon. Most commercial (and seedless) watermelons sold today are the product of a cultivation method known as parthenocarpy, which is the natural or artifical production of fruit without fertilization. Since the ovules are not fertilized, the resulting fruit is seedless. While there are many artificial methods of parthenocarpy used to produce seedless fruit and vegetable varieties, parthenocarpy also happens spontaneously in nature. A current theory holds that the naturally produced fruit or vegetable that results from parthenocarpy acts as a decoy and prevents the predation of reproductively viable seeds. Parthenocarpy has long been known by farmers and scientists-the earliest known cultivar is a fig variety cultivated over 10,000 years ago.
Parthenocarpy comes to English in the early 20th century via the German parthenocarpie which derives from the Ancient Greek word parthenos meaning virgin and karpos meaning fruit.
Image of seedless watermelon used with permission under a Creative Commons 3.0 license courtesy of Steven de Polo.