The Pepino Melon (Solanum muricatum) also called Pepino Dulce, Melon Pear, Melon Shrub and Pear Melon, is a fruit bearing shrub that has been cultivated by the people of the Andes region since pre-Columbian times. The cream-colored fruit with purple streaking is similar in size to a Roma Tomato. The flesh resembles a mixture of a honeydew melon and cucumber, hence the name Pepino meaning "cucumber" in Spanish, and the melon reference in its name. Despite its name, the Pepino Melon is actually more closely related to other fruits in the Solanum genus, such as the tomato and eggplant.
The Pepino Melon was sighted and described by early Spanish colonists as growing along the Peruvian coast and particularly abundant in the Moche Valley in Peru. In fact, the Pepino Melon dates back to the Moche civilization in northern Peru in 100 A.D.–800 A.D. While the seeds are tiny and soft and have not been found in archeological digs, the image of the Pepino Melon has been found in Moche pottery and other works of art.
The Pepino Melon has been cultivated from both seed and cuttings, with multiple wild relatives growing from Columbia to Chile. This gave the plant many years of natural crossing with its wild relatives, resulting in the plant's genetic diversity and the ability to be grown in multiple locations and climates. Once unique to the Andes, the plant is now being grown on a commercial scale in Western Australia, Chile and New Zealand. The Pepino Melon's popularity has even found its way to the U.S. Its history in the U.S. dates back to 1889 in San Diego, California, and was listed by Francisco Franceschi of Santa Barbara in 1897.
It is thought that the cultivated Pepino Melon was derived from wild relatives, although which wild relatives the Pepino Melon comes from have yet to be confirmed.There are many related species to the Pepino Melon such as the Tzimbalo Melon Pear (Solanum caripense).
The Tzimbalo Melon Pear resembles the Pepino Melon. However, the fruit is much smaller, similar to a tear-dropped cherry tomato. The smaller fruit contains a more juicy flesh with similar fruity flavors to the Pepino Melon but with more tart and tangy overtones. The Tzimbalo Melon Pear is possibly one of the Pepino Melon’s wild relatives.
The Tamarillo plant (Cyphomandra betacea), or “Tree Tomato," is native to the Andes and has a distant affinity to the Pepino Melon. The Tamarillo grows taller, like a tree or large shrub, and has bundles of small red oval-shaped fruit.
The Tamarillo can be grown in warmer climates or in greenhouses in cooler climates. The fruit tastes more like a tomato or ground cherry.
The skin of these fruits is traditionally not eaten; the flesh is usually scooped out. The larger Pepino Melons can be cut into slices and eaten like a melon. The Pepino Melon and the Tzimbalo Melon can be cut up for fruit salads, blended for a refreshing drink or cooked for sauces and curries. Tamarillo is more tart than Pepino and Tzimbalo Melon and is usually boiled with sugar to make a sauce or may also be blended raw for drinks. Experiment with any of these varieties for a unique addition to your garden and taste buds!