Cucumbers can be smooth or with tiny spines like this one. Long type slicing cucumbers like this one need to be grown vertically for the fruits to properly develop. Flowers are always yellow no matter what color the fruits are.
Most gardeners are not familiar with the white varieties. Like this Itachi from Johnny’s they tend to be mild to sweet with few to no seeds. This is a cuke that is 9 to 11 inches long, an Asian type, and it needs to be grown vertically. From seeding to harvest in warm soil, about 55 days. COURTESY NBG
537 H.J Heinz may have done more to promote the cucumber than anyone else (center). Clockwise on the right, Richmond Green Apple, Dragons Egg, Armenian Yard-Long and Crystal Apple. Top left Lemon Cuke and bottom left Xylangouro which is a Greek cucumber-melon (rareseeds.com). ANDREW MESSINGER
For several months, cucumbers have been floating around in my head. It all started with the Christmas tree we didn’t put up this year since we were in Georgia, and my lament that I wouldn’t be able to hang my favorite ornament, my Christmas pickle. But cucumbers continued to randomly pop into my mind, and I started to read and read. What I found out is that they are quite fascinating and have a remarkable history.
Now, we are months away from planting cukes or their seeds, but over the next two weeks it’s my goal to show you that we’re talking about much more than pickles and salad makings. The fact is that cucumbers have a long and rich history that covers Europe, the Middle East, Asia and South America. Yes, you can pickle them and slice them, smother them with sour cream or layer them on English finger sandwiches. But how do the gherkins fit in, and have you had an apple or lemon cuke? And what’s a cucamelon? From short and stubby like the Kirbys to the long and thin English slicers, there is also the classic Chinese Suyo Long and the Japanese Aognaga Jibai, the Gele Tros yellow and the miniature white. And dozens and dozens of others.
The cucumber is native to India, where it’s been grown for more than 3,000 years. In 1970 an excavation at the Spirit Cave site on the Myanmar-Thailand border uncovered cucumber seeds that were carbon dated back to 9750 B.C. It seems that Cucumis hardwickii, which is small and bitter and is native to the Himalayas, may be the earliest identified cuke, but it’s tiny, nasty tasting and contains a chemical that’s not just bitter, but a repellent to certain insects.
In ancient Egypt, cukes were a common food and favored when dipped in a brine. Locals were also said to drink “cucumber water,”’ which was a weak liquor. Research done in the late 1980s found an Egyptian recipe that directed the cutting of a hole in the ripe fruit then stuffing the insides with a stick. The hole was then plugged and the fruit buried in the earth for several days. When dug up, “the pulp converted to an agreeable liquid.”
The epic Mesopotamian poem of Gilgamesh, which dates back to 2100 B.C., mentions cukes. In the Hebrew bible (Numbers 11:5) it’s stated that in the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt: “We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers and melons and the leeks and onions and the garlic.”
The Greeks cultivated cucumbers on the northern shores of the Mediterranean, where they were called “sikous.” It wasn’t one of their favorite foods though, and they saw the cuke as a lowly vegetable as it was 96 percent water. But it was here that the cuke developed its reputation as never losing its cool as caravans passing through the area often carried supplies of cucumbers, which were slaked and used as a thirst quencher.
To the west, the Romans served cucumbers raw or boiled in oil, vinegar and honey. The Emperor Tiberius commanded cukes on his table every day. The emperor’s gardeners forced hothouse cucumbers out of season for use by the royal family, and they were grown in easily moved containers so the pots could be moved to follow the sun. Later in the first century A.D., Roman gardeners fashioned frames and covered them with glazed, translucent panes of silicates. These mica panes diffused light and the Romans were able to fashion cold frames (or maybe they were hot beds) for early and late season extenders for cukes.
The cucumber appeared in England during the reign of Henry VIII when Catherine of Aragon demanded them for her Spanish salads. By the time Elizabeth I ascended the English throne, five distinct varieties were grown: common, Turkish, adder, pear and Spanish.
And with the arrival of Christopher Columbus, the cukes made it to America. He grew them in an experimental garden in 1493. In 1539, explorer Hernando de Soto found the cucumbers that were growing in Florida were much better than those growing in Spain. By 1806, eight varieties of cukes were being grown in American colonial gardens.
Physicians of the 17th century prescribed placing fever patients on a bed of cucumbers so they would become “cool as a cucumber.” John Gerard wrote in The Herbal that cucumbers eaten three times a day in “otemeal porridge” would heal red noses and pimples of the face. He cautioned housewives, “those cucumbers must be chosen which are green … for when they be ripe and yellow, they be unfit to be eaten.” And this remains sound advice in 2020 as well. Dr. Samuel Johnson was reviled by cukes though and wrote “they should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, then thrown out”
The most famous cucumber of the 19th century was the one first preserved by H.J. Heinz of Pittsburgh. Heinz began bottling pickles in 1870 as a tasty addition to the monotonous diet of meat and potatoes eaten by most Americans at that time. His idea was not only an instant success, it also spurred interest in cucumber hybridization.
More recently, cucumbers were grown by Russian cosmonauts aboard the Solut-7 space station and they have also been grown nearly a mile below the earth’s surface in an Ontario nickel mine during a Canadian food project.
Home gardeners simply call them cukes. But botanists refer to cucumbers as Cucumis sativis. They belong to a very large family of over 500 cousins that include squash, pumpkins, gourds and melons. In fact, some cukes can cross-pollinate with some of the others in the family resulting in some very interesting results. Mostly interesting to look at though, not to taste. All the members of the family are characterized by being viney with rough and hairy leaves. The flowers are large and yellow, bearing fruits that can be globular, oblong or cylindrical.
Cukes are usually placed in one of two categories, either slicing or pickling. And yes, there are a few varieties that straddle the line and can be used for either. They are further classified by their plant habit, either bush or vining. In recent years, a number of bush varieties have been developed for hanging basket and container culture and they take up far less space than the sprawling vine types.
In general, cukes are easy to grow, but you do need to do some planning in terms of space and varieties. Like their melon and zuke cousins they can get some leaf diseases, but there are resistant varieties. There are three major insects, each controllable, and the plants thrive in the heat of the summer so don’t rush to get seeds started indoors or plant them too early outdoors. For now, look at the seed racks and catalogs.
Next week, I’ll get into choosing the right cucumber for your particular garden and use, cucumber sex, and burpless or not. Keep growing.
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One fine body…