Defined as the edible fruit of the cucumber plant, the modern cucumber originates from the wild Cucumis sativus, a climbing plant of the gourd family, native to Central and South Asia. Other members of this family include marrows, melons and pumpkins.
The cucumber has been cultivated from earliest times for its fruit, having being known in ancient Mesopotamia as early as 2000 BC.
From The Bible (Numbers 11:5), we may deduce that cucumbers were freely available in ancient Egypt, even to the enslaved Israelites:
We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick.The ancient Egyptians ate cucumber flesh to keep them hydrated while traversing dry Egyptian deserts. They would keep the skin intact so it could be used as a container to keep water cool.
The Israelites later came to cultivate the cucumber themselves. Isaiah 1:81 gives a brief insight into the method of agriculture:
And the Daughter of Zion is left as a cottage in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city.
The 'lodge' was a rough temporary shelter, often erected on legs, for the person who protected the produce (vines, cucumbers, gourds and the like) from birds, foxes, jackals and other thieves.
The Roman emperor Tiberius had such a passion for cucumbers that he insisted on having them served at every meal. Both Columella and Pliny the Elder describe in their books how the imperial gardeners ensured Tiberius could have cucumbers every day of the year, even though they only ripen naturally during a few months in the summer. They grew them in beds mounted on wheels, and kept moving them around to follow the sun. As sheet glass had not been invented, during cold months they covered the cucumber beds with sheets of mica, an alumino-silicate mineral that can be cleaved into thin translucent sheets2. This was the earliest form of greenhouse and was known as a 'specularium' (from the Latin verb 'to look').
It was probably the Romans who introduced the cucumber to Britain. The old English version of the Bible includes a word for cucumbers, eorþæppla, the literal meaning of which is 'earth-apples'3. But it is not clear whether the English had them or if this was just a word for a foreign food mentioned in the Bible. The first mention of cucumbers in England is in a seed list prepared for the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1326.
Cucumbers continued to be popular in Britain until the 15th Century, when many orchards and gardens were abandoned and destroyed during the Wars of the Roses. However, they underwent a resurgence in popularity during the reign of Henry VIII, who brought Flemish gardeners over to plant salad greens and cucumbers for his Spanish first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who had enjoyed them in her homeland.
The cucumber was introduced to the Americas in the 15th Century by Christopher Columbus.
In Britain, from about the 17th Century up until Victorian times, they were commonly known as 'cow-cumbers' and regarded as dangerous4 and ‘fit only for consumption by cows’, possibly due to their bitter taste and a belief that they were responsible for causing stomach upsets. Indeed, in the 1760s the essayist and poet Samuel Johnson remarked that
a cucumber should be well-sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out as good for nothing.
Later on it was discovered that the fruits of unpollinated female flowers are sweet. Nowadays, most varieties have all-female flowers.
The stems climb by tendrils and bear rough, heart-shaped leaves and yellow flowers. The fruits may be long and tubular, and range from about 4in to 2ft long. They have either a rough or smooth dark-green skin. The pulp is firm and pale green, and contains tiny seeds at its centre. The fruits of some small varieties are pickled young as gherkins; the word 'gherkin' deriving from the German word for cucumber, 'gurke'.
In temperate countries such as the UK, cucumbers generally need to be grown in heated greenhouses with a rich soil and plenty of water, although they can be grown outdoors during the summer.
Weighing in at 59lb (26.8kg), the world's heaviest cucumber was grown in Australia in 1988.
The longest cucumber ever was 6ft 2in (nearly 188cm) long.
Of relevance to current concerns about the amount of food wasted in Britain through unnecessary purchases is the fact that you can buy half-cucumbers in supermarkets. This has the added advantage that you can see the flesh and reach a judgment as to its possible shelf-life.
Although seemingly unnecessary and an anathema to people who are environmentally aware, even whole common 'slicing cucumbers' bought at supermarkets are often either shrink-wrapped in plastic or waxed. The supermarkets argue that this increases their shelf-life considerably and thus, in the long run, reduces food wastage. (In the case of bananas, the supermarkets argue that shrink-wrapping prevents ethene5 from dissipating from them and causing the premature ripening of other fruits stored nearby). Shrink-wrapped cucumbers will stay fresh for about 14 days, although other methods of packaging, such as breathable box liners, are now being introduced.
In 2008, a new variety of very thin-skinned cucumbers, dubbed the 'c-thru cucumber', became available in British supermarkets. A supermarket spokesperson said they do not have to be peeled (as if you would want to anyway!) and are therefore 'the perfect solution for those who like their cucumber sandwiches with neither skin nor too much effort'.
As most of the nutrition is present in the skin, and the c-thru cucumber is nearly 60 per cent more expensive than the conventional variety, they would seem to be a bit gimmicky and a complete waste of money.
Cucumber is generally served raw so that its crisp, distinctive flavour can be enjoyed to the full. There is no need to peel them. Thin slices served on cheese in a sandwich or on a cracker, together with a dash of vinegar, makes a delicious snack.
Cucumber is also a basic ingredient of green and mixed salads, while Greek restaurants invariably offer a cucumber-enriched yogurt dish known as tsatsiki.
Pimm's No. 1
Cucumber is an ingredient of traditional Pimm's No.1 Cup, a tonic invented by James Pimm in London in the 1840s as an aid to digestion. It is now a popular summer cocktail.
To make your own Pimm's Cup, add a slice per person of orange, lemon, apple and cucumber, a sprig of mint and two parts lemonade to one part Pimm's No.1.
Although botanically a fruit because they contain seeds to reproduce, cucumbers are typically grouped with vegetables due to their use. The fruit is commonly harvested while still green, and eaten as a vegetable - raw, cooked or pickled.
About 96 per cent water6, cucumbers are less nutritious than most fruit and vegetables.
The skin of the cucumber contains phytosterols, which have been shown to lower blood cholesterol concentrations in animals. This is a good reason not to peel the cucumber before serving.
Cucumbers contain only about 10 calories per 100g. They therefore make a popular addition to weight-loss diets.
Cucumbers in Folk Medicine
The cucumber has a lengthy pedigree as a folk medicine, used widely to reduce heat and inflammation.
Fresh cucumber juice is considered a great digestive aid because, acting as an anti-acid, it relieves heartburn. Cucumbers contain a proteolytic enzyme similar to pepsin which also aids digestion. The juice is efficacious to people suffering from gastritis or stomach ulcers. It is also said to have a cleansing effect on the bowel.
Cucumber is used to treat a wide range of conditions affecting the lungs; stomach, skin and chest problems; as well as gout, arthritis and tapeworm.
A slice of cucumber is just the right size to place over tired eyes; its cooling effect relaxes the eye muscles and reduces swelling.
Cucumber juice is said to provide relief from eczema, either as a drink or by external application.
'As Cool as a Cucumber'
This idiom means that such a person is 'calm and unruffled' or imperturbable. It presumably derives from the fact that cucumbers are cool to the touch. Indeed, the inside of a cucumber is said to be 20°C cooler than the ambient temperature8.
The phrase was first recorded in a poem by John Gay (1685 - 1732), A New Song of Old Similies:
Pert as a pear-monger I’d be,
If Molly were but kind;
Cool as a cucumber could see
The rest of womankind.