Common cucumbers, also known as cowcumbers, cukes, and the Greek sikuos, are native to the East Indies between the Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal. They belong to the Cucurbitaceae family, which includes gourds, watermelon, pumpkins, and other edible squashes. Cucumbers are a warm-season tendril annual that have yellow flowers and white fruit with semihard green rind. Most fruits are 2 to 10 inches, but the largest cucumber was recorded at 59 pounds in Australia. There are thousands of varieties, and new varieties are developed yearly.
Heirloom varieties have also been maintained and are gaining popularity. For example, the lemon cucumber heirloom variety was first introduced in 1894 and produces a small, round fruit that is pale yellow in color when mature. However, the Irish-American horticulturalist Bernard M'Mahon (1775–1816) identified in his comprehensive text, The American Gardener's Calendar: Adapted to the Climates and Seasons of the United States, eight original varieties in 1806. In the mid-1800s, Fearing Burr's New England horticulture catalogue included 10-foot cucumber vines that were a common length for producing enough fruits to harvest. Most new varieties are grown to produce high-quality properties as slicers, pickles, or diuretics or with disease resistance. Contemporary varieties have been developed to produce smaller more compact fruits per inch of plant.
Often referred to as a vegetable, the fruit of cucumbers is 96 percent water, and its flavor comes from the edible seeds. The internal temperature can remain 20° cooler than the air temperature, giving rise to the common phrase “cool as a cucumber.” Pickler cucumbers are paler green than slicer varieties and sometimes have light stripes. They usually have a thinner rind and crunchier texture, which allows them to avoid becoming soggy when pickled. Persian varieties are most commonly sold fresh, although they often have a waxed skin to retain moisture. There are three types of blossoms that are produced, depending on the cucumber variety. Monoecious plants have both male and female flowers; gynodioecious plants produce only female blooms, and parthenocarpic plants do not need pollination and produce seedless fruits. English greenhouse cucumbers are regularly consumed as slicers. These varieties do not self-pollinate, requiring external pollination. They produce a fruit with very small seeds, and so are called seedless cucumbers.
Original varieties of cucumber that are not bred to be “burpless” have a compound called cucubitacin that in large quantities can make the skin bitter and cause burping in humans. However, some people cannot taste the cucubitacin and so have no awareness of bitter cukes. Unfortunately, others are overly sensitive to this compound. The scent of cucubitacin is also responsible for attracting the yellow-and-black-striped cucumber beetle, which is cucumber growers’ worst enemy. This pest can destroy plants by eating leaves, flowers, and roots as well as transferring the devastating bacterial wilt that prevents water from distributing through the stems. However, the bitter chemical compound is thought to be a natural insecticide against other insects, so burpless varieties have no problems with aphids and spider mites.
Cucumbers are frequently soaked in vinegar or brine to create pickles. It is thought that this practice gained popularity to overcome the bitterness of the rind of earlier varieties. Egyptians ate brined cucumbers at every meal, and according to one company, 5 million pickles are consumed daily. There are numerous pickle recipes and variations, but a popular variety for pickling, cucumis anguria, is a small, oval fruit that is commonly referred to as a gherkin. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, in 2005 China led the world in the production of gherkins with 60 percent of the global total. Other significant gherkin producers include Turkey, Russia, Iran, and the United States.
Wild cucumbers were found to be in the diet of people living along the Burma-Thailand border as long ago as 9750 BCE. Cucumbers were first cultivated in parts of western Asia at least 3,000 years ago and in China in the second century BCE. It was recorded among the foods grown in the ancient city of Ur, along the Euphrates River, and in India, Greece, Italy, and China.
Many well-known leaders of history enjoyed cucumbers. The first-century CE encyclopedist Pliny the Elder wrote that the Romans used greenhouses to supply the Emperor Tiberius with his daily gherkins: “Indeed, he was never without it; for he had raised beds made in frames upon wheels, by means of which the cucumbers were moved and exposed to the full heat of the sun; while, in winter, they were withdrawn, and placed under the protection of frames glazed with mirrorstone.” There is a record of cultivation in France in the ninth century when they were popular with the king, Charlemagne. England began cultivating cucumbers in the 14th century, and they were common during Edward III's reign. However, their popularity waned with the war and strife of the time but recrudesced about 250 years later.
Cucumbers have been mentioned in several iconic writings including the Mesopotamian legend, Epic of Gilgamesh (27th century BC). Cucumbers were also referenced several times in the Bible. The Israelites complained to Moses that they missed the good parts of their old life, including “cucumbers and melons.” The prophet Isaiah referred to Jonah's misery by saying, “The daughter of Zion is left as a cottage in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers.” These historical references may be to wild varieties or other types of gourds.
In 1494, Christopher Columbus and his Spanish fleet brought cucumbers to cultivate in Hispaniola (the island of Haiti and the Dominican Republic). They were thereafter used by Native Americans. The Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto recorded the cultivation of cucumbers in Florida in 1539 as did the first voyagers to Virginia in 1584. In the 17th century in the new United States, raw foods and vegetables lost favor for fear of disease. It was said raw cucumbers were “only fit for cows,” thereby giving them the name “cowcumber.” In 1630, Reverend Francis Higginson published New England Plantation, which included a description of a Boston garden: “The countrie aboundeth naturally with store of roots of great varietie and good to eat. Our turnips, parsnips, and carrots are here both bigger and sweeter than is ordinary to be found in England. Here are store of pompions, cowcumbers, and other things of that nature which I know not.”
The Romans used cucumbers to treat scorpion bite and improve eyesight. Women wore them around their waists to increase fertility, while midwives also carried the fruit during labor and threw it away after the birth of the child.
Cucumbers have been used in Chinese medicine since the eighth century, when people used cucumber leaves as a diuretic. Cucumbers are still used as such today due to their high water content. In the 16th century, people used cucumber roots to help ease diarrhea and dysentery. The stems were first used in the 18th century to treat bowel and urinary diseases, dysentery, skin sores, as well as high blood pressure.
The fruit is still used to reduce swelling, detoxify the body, and ease throat pain, and as a laxative. There are some reports that cucurbitans have been found to be an antitumor agent in animals. The cucumber also has ascorbic acids with antioxidant properties and caffeic acids that act as anti-inflammatory and anticancer agents. They are said to eliminate uric acid, thereby helping kidney function and possibly even alleviating the symptoms of arthritis. Cucumbers are often suggested as a key ingredient in weight loss diets because of their low-calorie and high-water characteristics, aiding the body in reducing built-up water retention while still hydrating the system.
A common Chinese home remedy for dry lips and throat or to prevent laryngitis is a soup made from very mature cucumbers. Other medicinal uses around the world include the cucumber as an ingredient in taeniacide, which kills tapeworm, and some have tried to prevent cataracts with cucumber. It has also been used as an astringent.
Cleopatra used cucumbers on her skin, and records show its cosmetic uses dating back to 19th-century France. In contemporary society, it is very popular in skin and beauty products. Cucumbers’ key components of water, vitamin E, and other oils have made them a popular ingredient in skin cosmetics that soften and hydrate the skin as well as in products that add body and moisture to hair. The cucumber also includes the mineral silica, which helps keep the skin's connective tissue healthy and strong. The ascorbic and caffeic acids also prevent water retention, which may explain the cucumber's popular use of placing slices over the eyes during facials or in the morning to reduce puffiness and wrinkles. Cucumbers act as an astringent, tightening the pores and reducing swelling, thereby keeping skin soft and reducing wrinkles. This characteristic also is said to prevent acne and soothe irritated skin. The calm association of “coolness” with cucumbers as well as its subtle scent has made it a popular ingredient in shampoos, lotions, cosmetics, and even aromatherapy.
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