Cucumbers originated in India where they have been in cultivation for at least 3,000 years. The English word “cucumber” is a derivation of the Indian word kachumbar, which is still used today to describe an Indian salad made from cucumber, tomato, onion, and yoghurt. Cucumbers are mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh and twice in the Bible, and came to be one of the most ubiquitous ingredients of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. The Romans loved them, Charlemagne grew them in France in the 9th century, and Columbus introduced them to Haiti in 1494. The 17th century saw the cucumber’s rise in popularity as North American Indians found that they grew very well in the local climate.
Cucumbers are almost always harvested as immature fruits, while they are still green, and before they have turned yellow and grown bitter. Their growth habit — climbing, grasping vines, large yellow flowers, rough leaves, etc… — betrays their close botanical relationship to squash and melons, with which they are classified as Cucurbits. Just about all Cucurbits share similarities in their flowering and pollination as well. Male (pollen bearing) flowers appear first on the vine, followed by the larger female (pollen receiving) flowers. Female flowers have conspicuous ovaries at their base, which will swell into the actual fruit if pollination is successful. Male flowers are attached directly to the vine, with no “miniature fruit” at their bases.
Some cultivars have been developed that are “parthenocarpic,” which means they develop fruit without pollination, and their fruits contain no seeds. A few varieties are “gynoecious” and develop almost exclusively female flowers. These must be grown beside pollinator plants with abundant male flowers. The typical cucumber simply produces both kinds of flowers and requires pollen transfer by bees or by human intervention. In agricultural settings, masses of honeybees are transported to the cucumber field for this purpose.
To pollinate cucumbers, use a cotton swab or a fine, soft-hair paintbrush to lift pollen from the male flower and transfer it to the female. Pollen is produced at the tip of the central structure (anther) of the male flower and received by the tip of the central structure (stigma) of the female flower. Some growers use scissors to carefully cut a male flower from the plant, and then trim away the petals. This can then be brought in contact with the female stigma with a light twisting motion. As long as some pollen is transferred, pollination and fruit set is very likely.
Because cucumbers are native to the tropics, they like warm weather, but not excessive, dry heat. The faster the soil warms up beneath them during the day, the faster and more ample the harvest will be. Raised beds and greenhouses both work well for this purpose. It’s worth providing them some form of support or trellis, so that the fruits do not lie on the ground where they are exposed to slugs and prone to rotting. Trellised plants will exploit gravity and produce fruits that hang and grow straight. Fruits that develop on the ground may be curled or even grow into ring shapes.
Cucumbers are most nutritious when the peel is left on each fruit. They are, of course, over 90% water. But they’re a good source of potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and magnesium, as well as vitamin C. High in carbohydrates and dietary fibre, a 100g serving of cucumber contains only 16 calories.
Cucumbers that experience moisture stress from irregular irrigation tend to become bitter — even the so-called “burpless” varieties. The “burp” refers to a digestive problem some people have with the bitter skins of some cucumbers. Peeling a cucumber and removing its stem-end will remove the bitterness in most cases.
If you’re looking to celebrate the cucumber, you need to take a trip to Suzdal, a village northeast of Moscow, in early July. Nearly every household there lives off the proceeds of the annual cucumber harvest, as they have done in this region for 700 years. In July they cut loose and celebrate Cucumber Day with music, dancing, eating, and drinking. The houses are decorated with cucumbers — some merry-makers even wear cucumber-shaped masks and clothing. The event climaxes with the cucumber eating competition, with the winner being awarded a trip abroad… Presumably to some place that doesn’t grow cucumbers!