The common name “tree melon” is used to refer to several different fruiting plants native to South America. Unlike true melons, these fruits are not produced on sprawling vines, but they are flavorful with sweet, juicy flesh, much like real melons. People can sometimes find tree melons in the grocery store, especially if their grocers stock tropical fruit. Gardeners in tropical climates can grow tree melons from seeds or cuttings or can choose to purchase seedlings for cultivation from a nursery.
The papaya or Carica papaya is most commonly referred to as a tree melon. Papayas grow in clusters on tall trunks topped with palmate foliage. The fruits are yellow to orange in color, with a cluster of dark black seeds that will readily sprout in warm conditions. Pepinos, Solanum muricatum, are also sometimes called tree melons although they actually grow on perennial shrubs, not trees. These fruits are small with distinctive purple stripes and yellow to creamy flesh.
Tree melon can be used in a variety of ways in recipes. Like vine-growing melons, these fruits can be eaten plain out of hand or added to fruit salads for additional flavor. They can also be mixed into jams, jellies, and preserves, used as the basis for panna cotta and other fruit desserts, and employed in savory dishes like roasts. These melon-like fruits can also be utilized in smoothies and other fruit drinks, and are suitable for use as garnishes as well.
When selecting a tree melon in the store, people should look for fruits with unblemished rinds, no signs of soft spots or irregular coloration, and a weight that feels heavy for the size of the fruit, indicating juiciness. If fruits are not perfectly ripe, they can be placed in a brown paper bag with a banana and should ripen within a few days. If a recipe calls for tree melon and a substitute is needed, some options can include fresh mango, cherimoya, and regular melons, depending on the recipe.
People living in USDA zones nine through 11 can grow tree melons in their gardens. They need well drained, fertile soil and a sunny, warm spot in the garden. Papayas and pepinos both grow quickly and can bear fruit within six to nine months after planting. Gardeners should be aware that papayas need to be planted with at least one male tree in order to become pollinated and bear fruit.