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Cucumis sativus L. 1753
pronounced: KOO-koo-miss sat-EYE-vuss
(Cucurbitaceae – the squash family)
common name: Cucumber
Evidence suggests that the cucumber, originally from India, has been cultivated in western Asia for over 3,000 years. Some sources also claim that it was produced in ancient Thrace, and in Ur, the birthplace of Abraham – cucumber-fields are referred to in the Book of Isaiah in the bible. It spread to Greece in classical times, from there to Italy, where the Romans were especially fond of it, and later took it into other parts of Europe. Records of cucumber production appear in France in the 9th century, England in the 14th century, and North America by the mid-16th century. It reached China in early times.
The plant is a creeping vine that roots in the ground and is usually grown up trellises, wrapping around supports with thin spiralling tendrils. It has large leaves that form a canopy over the fruit, which is roughly cylindrical, elongated with tapered ends, and can be as large as 60 cm long by 10 cm wide, though usually much smaller. Having enclosed seeds and developing from a flower, cucumbers ate technically classified as fruits, although we more commonly think of them as vegetables. They have a very large water content, as high as 90%.
A few varieties of cucumber are parthenocarpic, the blossoms producing seedless fruit without pollination. If the flowers of these varieties are pollinated, the fruit is degraded; so they are usually grown in greenhouses so that bees are excluded. Most varieties, however, are seeded and require pollination, so thousands of hives of honey bees are carried each year to the cucumber fields at the appropriate time. Cucumbers may also be pollinated by bumble bees. Symptoms of inadequate pollination include fruit abortion and misshapen fruit. Partially pollinated flowers may develop fruit which are green and develop normally near the stem end, but are pale yellow and withered near the blossom end.
Traditional varieties produce male flowers first, then female, in about equivalent numbers. New hybrid cultivars produce almost entirely female blossoms; but since these do not provide pollen, a polliniferous variety must be interplanted, and the number of beehives increased. Insecticide applications must be done very carefully so as not to kill off the bees.
Cucumber varieties are divided into three main types: ‘slicing’, ‘pickling’ and ‘burpless’. There appears to be variability in the human olfactory response to cucumbers, with most people reporting a mild, almost watery flavour or a light melon taste, while a small but vocal minority report a highly repugnant taste, some say almost perfume-like.
The Romans are reported to have used cucumbers to treat scorpion bites, bad eyesight, and to scare away mice. Women wishing for children wore them round their waists. They were also carried by the midwives, and thrown away when the child was born.
Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.
Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2011
Page last updated 7th November 2016