Farm Girl Confidential: The Cucumber Quest
The Cucumber Quest
The cucumber is one of those vegetables you tend to buy without thinking too much about, and, like me, you probably eat them that way too. After all, a cucumber is just a cucumber. Well, that’s what I thought until a few years ago when a friend brought me a plethora of cucumber seed packets from Russia. I couldn’t understand a thing written on the packets, or pronounce the variety names, or even write the names, but I planted them out and tagged them by numbering the packets and plant tags accordingly.
Some of the plants grew well and produced unusual looking cucumbers: some bumpy, some smooth, some white and some green. Some thrived and others died, but none really impressed me until late fall when I discovered a lone cucumber hiding beneath a collapsed tomato plant. It was about eight inches long and narrow. I don’t remember if it was smooth skinned or spiny, but I do remember the taste. I ate it in the garden while I was working. I took a bite and was amazed by its sweet, intense cucumber flavor and extreme crispy crunchiness. I’d never before realized that a cucumber could be so delicious and so different. I searched relentlessly for the tag I had marked it with, but never found it. I’ve been on a quest ever since for a cucumber as delicious as that one.
This year I’m growing over 20 varieties: Russian, American, Japanese, Middle Eastern, Thai, Korean, Persian and more, with names like Beit Alpha (a delicious, very sweet cucumber that is usually picked small and does not need peeling as the skin is very tender), Delikatesse Cucumber (a rare variety from Germany) and Early Russian Cucumber (a very cold-hardy heirloom).
Cucumbers belong to the Cucurbitaceae family, which also includes squash, luffa, melon and pumpkin. Cucumbers belong to the same genus as the muskmelon. They are generally classified into five groups: field cucumbers, with prominent black or white spines; greenhouse or forcing type, often referred to as English cucumbers; the Sikkim, originating in India with reddish-orange skin; the small-fruited cultivars for pickling known as gherkins; and the apple-fruited cultivars, which have spherical fruit.
Although grocery stores in the U.S. sell a smooth, thick-skinned commercial type of cuke (cucumbers are very sensitive to transportation damage and many thick-skinned cultivars have been developed for just that reason and not for taste), there are innumerable varieties grown commercially as well as regionally around the world with many variations of shapes, sizes, colors, rind characteristics and flavor.
At the Balkan Symposium On Vegetables a few years ago, 840 newly-acquired cultivars were added to the existing collection, of which 480 were put into long-term storage in the gene bank in Sadovo, Bulgaria.
Farmers’ markets have brought this cucumber revolution to the forefront in recent years, offering elongated, bumpy, strangely-colored fruits, although generally the consumer—even at a farmers’ market—is looking for the familiar, not the unusual.
It is generally agreed that cucumbers originated in Southern Asia, and are native to the great Indian center of plant origins, which lies between the northern part of the Bay of Bengal and the towering Himalayas. It has never been found wild anywhere, but species closely related to it have been found wild in that region of India. The cucumber has been cultivated for at least 3000 years. Legend has it that Roman physicians of Emperor Tiberius recommended that it was necessary, for his health, to eat one cucumber a day. Thus began the Roman quest to grow cucumbers year round. According to Pliny the Elder, Romans built greenhouses that “consisted of beds mounted on wheels which they moved out into the sun and then on wintry days withdrew under the cover of frames, glazed with transparent stone or mica.”
Cucumber is a heat-loving plant and requires very warm temperatures. The optimum daytime temperature for growing cucumbers is a steaming 86 degrees, with nighttime temperatures around 65 degrees. High light intensity is also needed for optimum yield—cucumbers cannot be grown in the shade. In our northern gardens it is in flower from July to September, and the seeds ripen from August to October.
Cultivation is quite simple if the soil is rich and temperature is right. The soil should be heavily composted and fertilized and very well drained. The plants need a fair amount of water, but must not be waterlogged or they will shrivel up and die quickly. Starting them indoors in flats can be tricky for that reason. They are also subject to a large number of potentially devastating diseases such as wilts and powdery mildew, along with a host of predatory insects like striped cucumber beetles and squash bugs, all of which work quickly to destroy a crop, making cultivar choice important for the casual grower. Many cucumbers have been bred strictly for greenhouse cultivation and others for disease resistance. The “bugless” perfection of grocery store cucumbers scares me because I know how difficult it can be to raise cucumbers organically.
A few varieties of cucumber are parthenocarpic, the blossoms creating seedless fruit without pollination. But most cucumber varieties are seeded and require pollination by honeybees, bumblebees and several other bee species. Massive amounts of beehives are brought into commercial cucumber fields during the growing season. The symptoms of inadequate pollination include fruit drop and misshapen shapes and colors. Partially pollinated flowers may develop fruit that develop normally near the stem end, but that are pale yellow and withered at the blossom end. Yes, I’ve seen those in my garden.
One type of parthenocarpic cucumber is the greenhouse-grown English cucumber that can grow as long as two feet; they are nearly seedless and are sometimes marketed as “burpless,” as cucumber seeds are said to give some people gas. But studies have revealed that seedlessness is not always necessary to prevent this reaction. Proper garden management, constant soil moisture and good nutrition can help to avoid that gassiness in seeded varieties as well.
And there are so many varieties to choose from! Japanese cucumbers are mild, slender, deep green, and have a bumpy, ridged skin. They can be used for slicing, salads, pickling, etc., and are available year round. Mediterranean cucumbers are small, smooth-skinned and mild. Like the English cucumber, Mediterranean cucumbers are nearly seedless. Slicers grown commercially for the North American market are generally longer, smoother, more uniform in color, and have a tougher skin. Slicers in other countries are smaller and have a thinner, more delicate skin. The lemon cucumber is a round, yellow fruit with a very clean, citrus-like flavor.
Not all cucumbers are actually cucumbers but rather melons harvested at a very immature stage. The Armenian cucumber is one of these. It is one of the oldest heirlooms, first introduced from Armenia into Italy in the fifteenth century. Armenian cucumber, or Snake Melon as it was once called, is actually botanically a melon and therefore it can cross with cantaloupe or muskmelons, but not with cucumbers. I am growing a similar Italian melon-cucumber this year called Carosello Spuredda Leccese Verde. When harvested green, they are crisp, nutty flavored and delicious.
Elsewhere in my garden, Jaune Dickfleischige, a very rare German variety, produces huge green fruit that turn a lemon color at full maturity and can weigh up to five pounds, although it’s best eaten young when at its most crisp and flavorful. Sikkim cucumber, first discovered in the eastern Himalayas, can also reach several pounds in size. Its ripe fruit is a unique rusty red color with an interesting webbed pattern. It’s good cooked or raw. (In Asia, cucumbers are often stir-fried.) Thai Petch Tsai cucumber, a mild, lovely cuke best harvested at around five inches, and White Emerald cucumber, a vigorous and prolific fruit that grows well in a range of climates, are both from Thailand. Natsu Suzumi, a burpless variety that is very sweet, is also highly disease resistant and heat tolerant. Japanese Sooyow Nishjki, whose skin is dark green with defined ridges and fine white spines that are easily removed by washing, does not need peeling and is sweet and very crispy. Beit Alpha, a delicious Middle Eastern type of cuke, is small, tender, non-bitter with a good shelf life. That’s just to name a few. It’s going to be raining cucumbers this summer!
So what to do with all those cucumbers? They are a great treat for the skin. Applied topically they are very soothing, especially for swollen eyes, and they have the same pH as the skin so they can help restore and hydrate your skin at the same time. Cleopatra is said to have credited cucumbers for at least some of her beauty. But my favorite use has to be iced cucumber soup for those stifling hot summer days. I don’t think there’s any way more refreshing to use up such a multitude of crunchy, bumpy, summer perfection!