Historians aren’t certain about the exact origins of cantaloupe. The large number of melon family members (Cucumis melo) growing wild in Africa has led some investigators to place cantaloupe’s origins on that continent. But African melons may themselves have had ancestors in parts of Asia, including India or China.
Countries in the northernmost part of Africa lie along the south shores of the Mediterranean Sea, and cantaloupe was also enjoyed by people living in the Mediterranean and Middle East region fairly early on in its history. To this day, and on an annual basis, Turkey (3.5 billion pounds), Iran (2.9 billion pounds), and Egypt (2.4 billion pounds) remain major producers of cantaloupe. (The United States follows after Egypt with 2.2 billion pounds of production.) But in first place – and far ahead of these four countries – is China, a country that now produces half of the world’s melons (including cantaloupe) at a volume of nearly 25 billion pounds per year.
Attesting to the worldwide popularity of cantaloupe (and melons in general) is the practice of drying cantaloupe seeds for consumption as a snack food. This tradition can be seen in many parts of Central and South America, as well as in Asia and the Middle East.
Within the U.S., California is the largest cantaloupe-producing state and grows over half of all U.S. cantaloupe. Rounding out the top six cantaloupe-producing states are Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, and Texas.
Within California, the bulk of cantaloupe production occurs in one of two regions: the San Joaquin Valley of Central California and the Imperial Valley (in the more desert-like southeastern part of the state). In Imperial Valley, spring season melon planting can begin as early as January, allowing for harvest in May, and fall season planting can take place in July, allowing for harvest in October and November.
Despite its own robust cultivation of cantaloupe, the U.S. continues to import cantaloupe in large amounts. In 2010, the U.S. purchased over 425 million pounds of cantaloupe from Guatemala, nearly 300 million from Honduras, over 150 million from Costa Rica, and more than 60 million from Mexico.