Breeding a Better Moon and Stars
Moon and Stars Watermelon is one of those Seed Savers Exchange success stories. There are quite a few of them. Varieties that were in commerce decades ago and then lost. When it seemed that all that was left of a variety were the folks who remembered it existing at one time. Desperately seeking Moon and Stars, a melon last listed in seed catalogs in the 1930's and thought extinct, members of the Seed Savers Exchange searched almost from the beginning of that organization. In 1980 Merle Van Doren, a melon farmer near Macon, Missouri contacted Kent Whealy, director of SSE to tell him that he was still raising the melon. Van Doren said that it had been brought from Tennessee. The roundish, medium sized, dark green fruits are sometimes slightly ribbed with the signature small yellow “stars” that dot the surface and often a much larger yellow "moon".
Although, I was told by a commercial melon breeder in the 1980's that the "moon and stars" trait was caused by a virus that infects the seed, it is actually caused by a gene, the "Sp" gene, which is the source of the yellow spotting. The "Sp" gene is dominant and when the pollen "flies" in a melon patch with Moon and Stars, other melons nearby who receive the pollen will inherit the trait and pass it on to the following generation. There really isn't much of a need to get up close and pollinate the small watermelon flowers if you want to breed the trait into a new population. One only has to grow the first generation hybrids and look for the moon and stars trait. It shows up early and often the seed leaves (cotyledons) will have a yellow dot or two; the true leaves that follow are even more prominently marked. There are many variations of Moon and Stars. I've been lamenting the loss of a variant of Moon and Stars from the late 1980's. A melon collector named Curtis Slyvester Showell sent me seed of "Japanese Moon and Stars". It was a beautiful little dark green round ice box melon. Unlike Moon and Stars, the flesh was fine-grained and deep red instead of coarse and pink. It was also a long keeper that held up well instead of becoming mealy.
Moon and Stars has some flaws, who doesn't; but it is a very sweet and attractive melon that is indeed a national treasure.
Why mess with Moon and Stars? It's a compulsion of mine. Lets try for a better Moon and Stars. Many years ago I grew Moon and Stars the same year I grew really nice hybrid called You Sweet Thing, which was a delightfully sweet melon, an early ripening beauty. Having nothing else to cross, this was a match of necessity. Oddly, one of the main factors that control a breeding project happens to be what you have growing in the field at the same time. It's only in recent years that I will actually give some thought to the parents I need to grow for a particular cross before I plant (most of the time). The progeny of"You Sweet Thing x Moon and Stars" were all early small melons with stripes and light green rind like You Sweet Thing and the yellow stars of Moon and Stars. Unfortunately, not as dramatic or as beautiful as the originals. I've learned that it is important to grow dark colored melons where the "Sp" genetics will show up more readily.
This year I grew more than a half dozen kinds of acclaimed dark green early round "icebox" type melons; any one of which would be nice to pass the moon and star trait to along with the Van Doren Moon and Stars. I wasn't concerned that they differed in flesh color(red, pink or yellow flesh) but I did want to use only small seeded kinds since one of Moon and Stars characteristics (not a good one in my opinion) are the many large seeds it produces. Of all the resulting melons of this mass cross, we have already made some initial selection based on flesh quality. It happened late summer as we were saving the melon seed and conducting the mandatory taste testing that goes along with the job. The next step is when we plant the seed and screen the seedlings for the moon and star trait. Yes, our project distributes the seed to breeders if you too would like to work on this kind of project.