What a year for cucumbers in southern New England! In southern Rhode Island and western Massachusetts gardens, cukes were abundant in 2013.
Now, the National Garden Bureau has declared 2014 as the Year of the Cucumber. (The petunia will be the annual of the year and the Echinacea will be perennial of the year.)
The cucumber is one of the top five most popular garden vegetables. Cucumbers are very adaptable. They have been grown in space and a mile underground in a nickel mine. They are very easy to grow from seed, and deserve praise and a place in the New England garden.
The cucumber is native to India, where it has been grown for almost 3,000 years. Excavation at the Spirit Cave site on the Burma-Thailand frontier in 1970 uncovered seeds of cucumbers, beans, and water chestnuts that, according to radiocarbon dating, had been consumed in 9750 B.C.
Although the first wild cucumbers have never been fully identified, evidence seems to point to C. hardwickii, an unappetizingly small and very bitter native of the Himalayas, according to the Garden Bureau.. Bitterness, a plague to cucumber lovers throughout the ages, seems to be a natural protective device derived from its wild ancestors. That bitterness comes from cucurbitacins, a terpene derivative, that repels certain insects as well as some humans.
In ancient Egpyt, cucumbers were cultivated as a common food and the populace savored them dipped in brine. They also drank “cucumber water” as a weak liquor. National Garden Bureau research found one Egyptian “recipe” directed the cutting of a hole in the ripe fruit, then the stirring of 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.”
On the northern shores of the Mediterranean, the Greeks also cultivated cucumbers, calling them sikous (sikua, in modern Greek). However, the vegetable was not one of their favorite foods. Perhaps they viewed the cucumber as primarily water – 96% of it is. Yet it was the cucumber’s water retentive ability that earned it an undisputed reputation for never losing its cool. Early caravans often carried supplies of cucumbers to quench their thirst on long journeys.
Farther west, the Romans served cucumbers raw or boiled with oil, vinegar and honey. The Emperor Tiberius commanded cukes on his table every day. His gardeners forced hothouse cucumbers in portable containers which they moved from place to place to follow the sunlight to provide out of season for the Royal household.
Later, during the 1st Century, A.D., Roman gardeners fashioned cucumber frames and covered them with glazed, translucent panes of silicates. The mica pans diffused light and the Romans used them as we now use cold frames.
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.
Cucumbers arrived in America with Columbus. He grew them in an experimental garden in 1493. In 1539, De Soto found the cucumbers grown in Florida better than those grown in Spain. By 1806 eight varieties of cucumbers would be found growing in America’s 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.” Dr. Samuel Johnson was reviled by cucumbers and wrote ”they should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, then thrown out…”
The most famous pickled 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. His idea was not only an instant success, it also spurred interest in cucumber hybridization.
In recent history, cucumbers were grown in space by Russian cosmonauts aboard Salut-7 during a 211 day endurance flight. Cucumbers have been cultivated successfully nearly one mile beneath the earth’s surface in an Ontario nickel mine during a food project sponsored by the Canadian government.
Proving its adaptability to many climates and cultures from native India to space flights, the cucumber grows and produces fruit in many varying conditions. Chosen by the National Garden Bureau for special recognition in 2014, the cucumber is easily grown by beginning and expert gardeners.
In my garden this year, Mexican gherkins and a variety called Boothby’s Blonde were especially productive.