The ‘Bradford Family’ Watermelon

In South Carolina, the Bradford family strengthens its Southern roots by saving one of the world’s best tasting heirloom watermelons from extinction.

| Summer 2018

Last year, Nat Bradford found a bulbing allium growing in a patch of woods on his farm in Sumter, South Carolina. Because I organize the Western North Carolina Garlic Festival, Nat emailed me with the inquiry, “Could this be a landrace garlic?” I decided to sleep on it, and didn’t reply straight away.

The next morning I had a Facebook message, a text message, an email, and a missed phone call, all about the garlic. Nat had already shipped samples to a collection of well-known chefs, taken various photos, and transplanted some of the bulbs into pots. Within the week, I received my own zip-close bag containing an uprooted garlic-esque plant. I’m pretty sure the allium is a naturalized elephant garlic that didn’t get very big — but this isn’t a story about an amazing new garlic cultivar. It’s the tale of a landscaper-turned-farmer who has two essential qualities for success: a bit of luck, and loads of persistent and enthusiastic motivation.

One would guess that Nat inherited these qualities from his great-grandfather, who developed new seed cultivars back in the late 1800s — the age of agricultural experimentation — on the same land Nat now farms. Today, Nat’s dedication and botanical sense of adventure are why he was one of a select group of farmers to reintroduce the Carolina African runner peanut (Arachis hypogaea), thought to be extinct; why he’s continuing the work of Louisiana State University’s American Groundnut breeding project; and why he’s one of the few farmers in South Carolina to grow industrial hemp in more than a hundred years. It’s also the reason he’s resurrecting and reintroducing three family heirlooms: an okra (which you can find in the “Seed Shop”), a collard, and a watermelon. 

Sweet Origins

The ‘Bradford Family’ watermelon is an heirloom with a classic narrative of glory, loss, and revival. Think of it as the poster child for the story of our food culture. This cultivar’s history begins during the American Revolution, on a British prison ship bound for the West Indies in 1783. On board, a Georgian prisoner named John Franklin Lawson saved the seeds from a slice of watermelon offered to him by the captain. After being freed and returning to his home state, Lawson planted and grew out those seeds. The resulting watermelon was noted for its sweetness and flavor.

The Bradford connection to this melon appears around 1840, when Lawson sent some seeds to Nathaniel Napoleon Bradford of Sumter County, South Carolina. Bradford crossed the Lawson cultivar and ‘Mountain Sweet’ to produce ‘Bradford Family.’ From the 1850s to the 1910s, the ‘Bradford Family’ watermelon was famed in the South and beyond for its ability to produce late in the season. It was also known to be drought-tolerant and incredibly tasty.

The last commercial planting of ‘Bradford Family’ was recorded in 1922. Nearly 100 years later, Dr. David Shields, distinguished food historian, award-winning author, and professor at the University of South Carolina, began hunting for the seed. “I checked germplasm banks, seed savers’ exchanges, read original seed catalogs from the 1800s, and wrote watermelon growers in the boondocks rumored to have old melons. They tended to have old, bad melons. I was unable to find the ‘Bradford,’ and I almost lost hope,” says Shields.

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