The phrase, “cool as a cucumber” was first used in 1732 in a poem by John Gay, entitled New Song on New Similes. Cucumbers are cool; in fact, the inside of a cucumber can be as much as 12°C cooler than the air temperature due to cucumbers being made up of 90% water.1
Cucumbers originated on the subcontinent of India. They have been cultivated in India and China for at least 3,000 years. They made their way into Europe along the trade routes, notably the “Silk Road”. They were known in France in the 9th century and were in England by the 14th century. By the 15th century they had been introduced to the Americas; it is believed that Christopher Columbus brought cucumbers to Haiti in 1494.2
Cucumbers (Cucurmis sativus) are annual, warm-climate, vining plants, climbing anything that will help them reach up into the sun. The vines use thin tendrils to cling to their support. Large leaves provide shade for the growing fruit. Generally, both male and female flowers develop on the same vine.2 Cucumber skin can be smooth, rough, hairy, spiny or even prickly. Many cucumbers are long and skinny but a few have been developed that are more round in shape. Cucumbers come in a variety of skin colours, including yellow, orange, white and brown.
CULINARY and MEDICINAL USES
Cucumbers can be eaten fresh in salads, made into dips or blended into smoothies. They are commonly found in Indian chutneys and as an ingredient in dishes container pulses/legumes. They can be pickled, either sliced or whole; or fermented in kimchi. Cucumbers can be used in cocktails, with or without alcohol, and slices of cucumber have traditionally been used to garnish drinks. Cucumber is often served as a side dish but its main purpose is as a palette cleanser: it is only temporarily effective against ‘chilli burn’ (that’s why yoghurt – a dairy product – is often served with dishes containing chilli).3 Being 90% water, eating cucumbers can help avoid dehydration.
Medicinally, cucumbers have been used in India and China for thousands of years. Seeds and leaves have been used to treat sunburn and puffy eyes. The seeds themselves have been used to treat tapeworm, colds and bowel diseases. Leaves, stems and roots have been used to treat diarrhoea and as an antioxidant. Unripe cucumber fruit was believed to have a laxative effect.4
Cucumbers are used in beauty products and facial treatments. Because they contain a substance called ‘cucurbitacin’, research is currently being conducted in their use again cancer and aging.4
HOW TO GROW CUCUMBERS
Different varieties of cucumbers grow to different heights, so be sure to refer to the seed packet for information about trellises. It is best to put the trellis in before sowing the cucumber seeds.
Sow seed directly where you want the cucumbers to grow. The soil needs to be deep and rich in organic matter. Sow two seeds in a slightly raised mound to ensure good drainage.
If the bed is not prepared or the soil is too cold (cucumbers like a soil temperature of 20-26°C), you can try growing plants in toilet roll tubes for a short while. When you are ready to plant, you can slit one side of the tube and plant the whole thing, tube and all. We find it easier to make sure the whole thing is thoroughly watered (so the root ball holds together) then we carefully peel the sodden cardboard away and gently place the plant in the prepared hole. This works very well for us: we have found that many times the cardboard still has broken down when annual plants are finished their life cycle.
Cucumbers are hungry and thirsty plants so make sure they get regular water. The plants may benefit from a fortnightly dose of a well-balanced organic, liquid fertiliser. Too much nitrogen will lead to healthy leaf growth at the expense of fruit.
When the fruits begin to develop, they may need protection from birds and vermin who might snack on the developing fruit. We use mesh bags from the hardware shop and bag each fruit individually. For small (picking) cucumbers, you could try organza bags sold for packaging bonbonniere for weddings.
Cucumbers are self-regulating as regards the amount of fruit they produce. Once they have reached that “in-built” number, they stop producing. To circumvent this, harvest often – the vine will then continue producing until it becomes too old or the weather begins to cool.
Cucumbers that we eat are often green; this is the immature fruit. If you wish to save seed, you would leave the fruit on the vine until the vine dies; or until the fruit has changed colour and is beginning to be soft.
Cucumbers are susceptible to fungal problems, including powdery mildew, in warm, humid weather. There is a great article on the Sustainable Gardening Australia website about this gardening issue and steps you can take to minimise the likelihood of attack and what to do if your plants succumb.
Aphids also like the young tips of cucumbers – try planting nasturtiums in your garden to attract the aphids away from your cucumber plants.
CUCUMBERS IN THE PSW SEEDBANK (your seedbank)
- Beit Alpha – a Lebanese-style cucumber
- German Pickling – a gherkin-style cucumber
- Kiwano – usually eaten when fully ripe, sweet, more a melon than cucumber
- Little Potato – round, brown-skinned fruit to 8cm
- Long White: long white fruit, excellent flavour
- Marketmore 76 – a popular, “English” style cucumber
- Poona Keera – round; white skin, turning brown; early maturing variety
- Richmond Green Apple – oval fruit to 12cm, developed in Australia
- Spacemaster – bush variety, can be grown in containers
- Spiky – aka “West Indian Gherkin” – small, spiny fruit, heavy producer
- White Spine – fruit to 15cm, white skin, small spines brush off easily
The links above are to the PSW Spring 2022 catalogue, which closes on 28 November for stocktake. For postage and handling, there is a charge of $5. For “Click and Collect” at the next PSW or Seed Savers meeting, there is a $2 handling fee.
There will be a sale on all seed at the PSW meeting, 7 November, at Wentworthville; no handling fee involved – cash only, no EFTPOS available.
There may also be some cucumber seedlings available (50c each) at the PSW meeting on Monday night, 7 November. Please check this web page for seedlings available. You can pre-order seedlings to be picked up at the meeting, or from private homes in Emu Heights or Constitution Hill. After you have checked the list, send your order, by email, detailing where you’d like to collect your seedlings and to receive payment instructions.
Please note: seeds and seedlings are for the use of PSW members only. Please do not order if you are not a member, your order cannot be filled until your membership is paid.
Until next month
Lynne (PSW Seed Savers Team Coordinator and Custodian of the Seed Bank)
This article is for gardening information and general interest only. Being neither a herbalist nor a qualified medical practitioner, I cannot give any medical advice on the use of cucumbers, internally or externally. Readers of this article must do their own research before using cucumbers for any purpose other than as a garden plant.
- Sarah Bond; Cucumbers 101
- Roger A Doucet, Bourlaye Fofana; Cucumber
- Leigh Campbell; How to Stop Chilli Burn, Fast
- Rachel Fieldhouse; Feature Plant Friday: Cucumber – More than just a pickle