A rare variety of heirloom watermelon could have gone extinct if not for the efforts of one 70-year-old Halifax gardening hobbyist and his watermelon aficionado son.
“I’m just a helper; I just help him out — he’s the boss,” said local resident Anthony Fitzwater, in reference to his son, Joshua.
The Fitzwaters have been growing heirloom watermelons since 2019 when they collaborated with the Patawomeck tribe near Stafford to grow Ali Baba and Moon and Stars varieties.
Joshua Fitzwater caught the heirloom watermelon bug along with his life partner, Debra Freeman, as a result of their mutual work in culinary journalism.
“Seven years ago I started Southern Grit magazine, which was about food, and our natural interest meeting chefs and farmers is what led to our watermelon obsession — starting in 2019,” Joshua Fitzwater explained.
Joshua Fitzwater, along with Freeman, searched along the greater East Coast region for rare and appealing heirloom watermelon varieties — a quest not just for culinary novelty, but for history and Americana as well.
Their journey took them all the way to West Monroe, Louisiana, where horticulturist Kerry Heafner was already on a mission to save the near-extinct Red-and-Sweet watermelon variety.
The Red-and-Sweet watermelon came about as the result of selective breeding experiments conducted by the Louisiana State University Agricultural Experiment Station in Calhoun, Louisiana. The station operated from 1888 to 2011, utilizing selective breeding to create more durable and commercially viable agricultural products.
By contrast, agricultural scientists use genetic modification to produce modern wares such as seedless watermelons, for example. The Red-and-Sweet is therefore rightly called “heirloom,” as its development did not use these newer methods.
During its 123-year run, the Experiment Station produced five watermelons, with the Red-and-Sweet being the sweetest. Its closing in 2011 meant that there was no longer a staff to ensure the continuation of its various breeds and seed lines.
Furthermore, the rise of the popularity of genetically modified seedless watermelons, and the relatively thin rind of the Red-and-Sweet — rendering it poor for shipping purposes — further reduced incentives for farmers to grow the rare breed.
“Kerry Heafner, the horticulturist, was trying to basically find somebody that could help reintroduce it and grow it out big and save seed,” Joshua Fitzwater recounted.
Heafner gifted a single Red-and-Sweet to Freeman and Joshua Fitzwater, who kept the seeds and recruited his father, Anthony, to the mission of saving the breed from near-extinction.
“I knew I was going to need help, because we were going to try to go big with it,” Joshua Fitzwater explained.
He continued, “It just seemed a natural fit,” given that he and his father were already growing heirloom watermelons each year.
For Anthony Fitzwater, the watermelon business is something of a “retirement career,” as he and wife Alice Faye Fitzwater moved to Scottsburg from Norfolk earlier this year to retire close to family members.
“It takes a lot of work, but I enjoy it,” he stated.
Anthony Fitzwater, who worked as an optical lab technician for 25 years and as a lab courier for 17 more, reports that he loves the retirement life, as well as his new home in Halifax.
“I love it up here. I’m originally from West Virginia, so I’m going back to the country,” he explained.
In regard to retirement life, Anthony Fitzwater stated humorously, “I love being retired, and I get to play a little more golf.”
He noted that he also enjoys that he gets to spend more time with son Joshua through their shared project.
“I just enjoy helping him with his watermelons,” he expressed.
Joshua Fitzwater said he is more motivated by preserving history and by the mission to save a high-quality watermelon from extinction.
“For me, it’s a history preservation thing more than anything,” he shared.
Joshua Fitzwater also has an admiration for the work conducted by the Louisiana State University Agricultural Experiment Station and does not want to see that work go to waste.
“From the 1950s until 1987 when they released their final watermelon — which was the Red-and-Sweet — they reached like a pinnacle of breeding where they had gotten down to this one watermelon that was so delicious and strong and hearty and a good producer and had good resistance against Fusarium wilt,” he elaborated.
Fusarium wilt is an aggressive fungal infection that can lay waste to several crops, including watermelons. Part of the Experiment Station’s mission was to breed products that were resistant to the disease.
At the same time the station closed down, the seed company that had been producing the Red-and-Sweet shuttered its doors as well.
“It whittled down to just a few farmers out there growing it, to then today hardly anybody growing it,” Joshua Fitzwater explained. “And so it was almost lost.”
From a consumer perspective, it is lucky that the Fitzwaters have helped to bring the Red-and-Sweet back from the brink. With an average Brix count of 11-14, the Red-and-Sweet offers a deliciously succulent and sugary flavor to those fortunate enough to encounter one.
“Any watermelon that registers above a 10 is very sweet,” Joshua Fitzwater stated, explaining the Brix scale.
Having traveled with partner Freeman for multiple consecutive years sampling rare heirloom watermelons, Joshua Fitzwater has a uniquely authoritative perspective on the topic.
“Of all the varieties that we tried — we tried probably 30+ really rare heirloom watermelons — Red-and-Sweet is without a doubt the sweetest,” he reported.
Anthony Fitzwater confirms that the Red-and-Sweet is his favorite of all the varieties he has grown thus far. “I would give the Red-and-Sweet just a hair better,” he stated.
As part of their mission to promote this obscure piece of culinary history, the Fitzwaters have marketed the Red-and-Sweet to chefs across the commonwealth.
Rabia Kamara — the creative force behind Ruby Scoops in Richmond and winner of the Food Network’s Ben and Jerry’s Clash of the Cones — utilized the Fitzwaters’ Red-and-Sweet melons for a limited edition ice cream flavor.
Model Citizen Cocktail Pop-Up and tapas restaurant Crudo Nudo in Norfolk partnered to host an event celebrating the Red-and Sweet — with both cocktails and food menu items focused on the ingredient.
Chef Leah Branch of The Roosevelt restaurant in Richmond created a brûléed dish using the Red-and-Sweet, kumquat, and other flavorful ingredients.
With its mouth-watering sweetness and culinary versatility, the Red-and-Sweet is not just an heirloom, but a treasure as well. The Fitzwaters are playing a vital role in preserving not only the seed line, but also its fascinating history.
“By bringing it back, we are essentially telling the story of all the hard work that that experiment station and all the people there did,” Joshua Fitzwater explained.
“In a sense, I’m sending them a piece of history,” he concluded.