The modern cucumber (Cucumis sativus) is probably a descendent of the wildCucumis harwickii, a native of the foothills of the Himalayas. The culinary cucumber was known in India by at least 2000 BC. The Gherkin (Cucumis anguria) descends from the African Cucumis longipes and was introduced to the West Indies, probably with the Portuguese slave trade, from Angola. It has commonly been called the West Indies Gherkin, due to the mistaken belief, dating to at least the 18th century, that the West Indies was its place of origin. All of the ancient Roman writers on agriculture mention the cucumber. Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 BC) gives the Latin name of Curvimur for the cucumber, referring to the curvature of the fruit. The Greek name for cucumber is sikys, meaning the plant has no aphrodisiac qualities, hence the Greek proverb; "Let a woman weaving a cloak eat a cucumber; because female weavers, if we believe Aristotle, are unchaste, and eager for love making." Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) records the often repeated story of the cucumber being; "a delicacy for which the emperor Tiberius had a remarkable partiality; in fact there was never a day on which he was not supplied with it".
In France the cucumber is listed in the Capitulare de Villis (c. 800) prepared for King Charlemagne. The cucumber was probably first introduced to England during the reign of King Edward III. A list of seeds prepared by Roger, the gardener to the archbishop of Canterbury, includes "concumber & gourde" (1326-27). It is apparently lost during the wars of York and Lancaster and then reintroduced during the reign of King Henry VIII sometime after 1515. The cucumber is listed in William Turner's A New Herball (1551) and Thomas Hill in The Gardener's Labyrinth (1577) is the first to give complete instructions for growing the cucumber and also is the first to introduce the method of raising cucumbers on hotbeds for an early crop as well as growing them in molds to create fanciful shapes and imprints on the fruit. The first varietal description of cucumbers appear in Gerard's Herball (1597) which lists the common cucumber, adder's cucumber, "peare fashioned Cucumber", as well as an unusual cucumber, or possibly a melon he describes as: "There hath bin not long since sent out of Spain some seeds of a rare & beautiful cucumber, into Strausburg a city in Germany the fruit commeth in place, of a foot in length, greene on the side toward the ground, yellow to the Sun ward, straked with many spots and lines of divers colours. The pulpe or meat is hard and fast like that of our Pompion."
John Parkinson lists six varieties of cucumber in Paridisi in Sol (1629), several of them recognizable well into the 18th century. His cucumbers are: "The long greene Cowcumber, The short Cowcumber; being short, and of an equall bignesse in the body thereof, and of unequall bignesse at both ends; The long Yellow, which is yellowish from the beginning, and more yellow when it is ripe, and hath beene measured to be thirteene inches long; Another kinde is early ripe, called The French Kinde; The Dantsicke kind bareth but small fruit (used for pickles); The Muscovie kinde is the smallest of all other, yet knowne (only bearing 4 or 5 fruits per plant about the size of a small lemon."
By the end of the 17th century the cucumber becomes fairly common in English gardens although there persists some question as to its healthfulness. It is said that the antique name of cowcumber arose because the fruit was thought fit only for cows. This is somewhat curious given the fondness of the Roman emperor Tiberius for the cucumber but a certain suspicion about this fruit lingers right up to the 18th century. The Countrey Farme, which is a 1616 translation of the 16th century French work Maisons Rustique, records: “The use of Cucumbers is altogether hurtfull” An entry in Samuel Pepys Diary on Aug. 22, 1663 reads: "Mr. Newburne is dead of eating cowcumbers, of which, the other day, I heard another, I think Sir Nicholas Crisp's son." John Evelyn writes in Acetaria (1699), "The Cucumber it self, now so universally eaten, being accounted little better than Poyson, even within our Memory." Despite Evelyn's optimism Landon Carter records in his diary on July 24, 1766 his concern for his daughter Judy who is sick; "She does bear ungovernable the whole summer through, eating extravagantly and late at night of cucumbers and all sorts of bilious trash."
The cucumber arrives with the first explorers to North America. Columbus introduced the cucumber to Haiti in 1494. Forty Five years later Desoto records seeing cucumbers in Florida (1539). Cartier observes "very great cucumbers" near Montreal in 1535. although in this instance, Cartier’s fruit is more likely a squash. De Sotos’s description of the fruit as "better than those of Spain" would suggest that he was describing a cucumber rather than a squash. The cucumber may have preceded the English colonists to Virginia. The Spanish Captains Amidas and Barlow recorded cucumbers in Native gardens in Virginia in 1584 although this, again, could refer to squashes as most early references to squash class them as cucumbers, melons or gourds. Cucumbers were planted at Jamestown in the first years of that settlement as recorded in A True Declaration of the estate of the Colonie in Virginia(1610);“What should I s “ What should I speake of cucumbers, muske melons, pompions, potatoes, parsneps, carrets, turnups, which our gardens yeelded with little art and labour.” peake of cucumbers, muske melons, pompions, potatoes, parsneps, carrets, turnups, which our gardens yeelded with little art and labour.”
With very few exceptions, all of the cucumbers grown today have been developed within the last 100 years. It appears that all of the 18th century cucumbers with green fruit were of the black spined variety. It is not clear when the white spined varieties, which comprise most of the cucumbers known today, comes into cultivation. The White Spined cucumber is listed by McMahon in American Gardener's Calendar (1806).
These are the most common cucumbers listed in seed inventories both in America and England during the 18th century. They are both black spined, characterized by an uneven surface with many more warts than the modern cucumber. They also tended to be blunter on the two ends rather than the torpedo shape we associate with our modern fruit. These are also the most ancient of cultivated cucumbers. Gerard's illustration of the common cucumber in the Herball (1597) shows a rather short, blunt fruit with many warts, and though not clearly illustrated, it is likely a very spiny fruit by modern standards. John Abercrombie, in Every man his own Gardener (1776), lists six types of cucumbers but comments that the "early short prickly and the long green prickly are commonly cultivated for the general crop." It does not appear that these varieties are as rigid in description and uniformity as what we are accustomed to in modern varieties. Philip Miller, in The Gardeners Dictionary (1754), lists only three general types of cucumbers but comments; "The first of these Kinds is the most common in the English Gardens, of which there are two or three Varieties, differing in the Length or Roughness of the outer Skin of the Fruit: but these being only accidental Sportings of Nature, I shall pass them over without making any Distinction of them." The "Sportings of Nature" referred to by Miller is the result of individual gardeners saving seeds and the many crosses between varieties that arise from this practice. This is recognized by William Cobbett in The English Gardener (1829), who writes: "With regard to sorts, however, people generally save the seed themselves of this plant, or get it from some careful and curious neighbour; and every one sows that which happens to suit his fancy." However, as a general description, Mawe and Abercrombie in the Dictionary of Gardening and Botany(1778) describes the Early Short Prickly as "A short fruit three or four inches long, the rind rather smooth and set with small black prickles." The long prickly seems to average 6 - 10" in length. The primary distinction between the long and the short varieties, as far as garden use, is the shorter varieties are the earlier bearers and are generally used for pickles.
Ferring Burr in Field and Vegetable Gardens of America (1865) lists both the Long Prickly and the Short Prickly cucumber saying that they differ from the London Long Green in that they are "much thicker in proportion to its length; and also in the character of its flesh, which is more pulpy and seedy." Because these are not desirable characteristics to the modern gardener, very few cucumber varieties available today would approximate the 18th century prickly cucumbers. A variety calledEverbearing, which is a short black spined variety developed about 1888 by J.M. Thornburn & Co. is still available and the Long Green Ridge is a black spined variety available from the English seed house of Thomas Eddy Esq. and said to date to 1787.
These may be descendents of the Long Yellow cucumber listed by John Parkinson inParadisi in Sol(1629). Stephen Switzer, in The Practical Kitchen Gardener (1727), initially lists three kinds of cucumber: The long green, long yellow and fructa minore(a short cucumber). However in the text on cucumbers he says: but later years has produced more varieties, viz. and he goes on to list six varieties, three greens, two white and one yellow. The very next year Richard Bradley publishes theDictionarium botanicum (1728), in which he lists two sorts of white cucumbers but no yellow and although all subsequent 18th century writers, both here and in England, list the white cucumber, the yellow cucumber seems to disappear from culture. Philip Miller, in the Gardeners Dictionary (1754), compares the white cucumber to the other varieties as; by far the better Fruit, as being less watery, and containing fewer Seeds, is the most common Kind cultivated in Holland; for I do not remember to have seen one of our green Sort in any of the Markets in that Country. The white cucumber may have been more common in the gentry gardens because its culture is somewhat more demanding than the green. Amelia Simmons in American Cookery (1796) alludes to this; the white is difficult to raise and tender. As there are both long and short varieties of white cucumber listed in period works, most varieties of white cucumbers available today should approximate the type.
There is some overlap in the terminology here. The Turkey cucumber has always been a larger fruit than the common cucumber and has evidently been used as a variety name for several different plants. In Leonhart Fuchs Historia Stirpium (1542), the turkey cucumber (cucumis turicus), is actually a pumpkin. Bradley in Dictionarium botanicum (1728), describes two sorts which come from Turkey, [white and green]whose Fruit is very large, long and smooth. John Abercrombie in Every man his own Gardener (1776), writes the Turkey kinds often grow fifteen or sixteen inches long. Mawe and Abercrombie in the Dictionary of Gardening and Botany (1778) describe the Long Green Turkey cucumber as a long, smooth, green rinded fruit, without prickles, attaining from ten to fifteen inches in length. In this country, Gardener and Hepburn, in The American Gardener (1804) and McMahon inAmerican Gardener’s Calendar(1806) list both the green and the white Turkey Cucumber. All authors describe this cucumber as having few seeds and being a light bearer. They also may be somewhat less bitter than the prickly sorts. Amelia Simmons in American Cookery(1796) writes; Cucumbers, are of many kinds; the prickly is best for pickles but generally bitter…chose the bright green, smooth and proper sized. This is likely a Turkey cucumber judging by her description of it being smooth.
By the 19th century Ferring Burr, in Field and Garden Vegetables of America (1865), writes of theLong Green Turkey; A distinct and well-defined variety; when full grown, sometimes measuring nearly eighteen inches in length. He describes it as a long, slender cucumber, contracted towards the stem in a neck with only a few seeds produced towards the blossom end. This variety is probably the Green and White Turkey Cucumber ordered by Robert Carter Nicholas from John Norton in 1771. his cucumber appears to be closer in appearance to the modern cucumber. It is longer, smoother and has fewer seeds than the black spined varieties. Modern cucumbers are primarily white spined fruits that have many of the attributes ascribed to the Turkey cucumber. However, one of first references to the white spined cucumber is found in Bernard McMahon’s American Gardener’s Calendar (1806), who also lists green and white Turkey cucumbers as distinct varieties. Burr (Field and Garden Vegetables of America, 1865) also lists the White spine and Turkey cucumber as separate varieties.
It is possible that the Turkey cucumber alluded to in some of these works was the Armenian Melon, also called the Turkey cucumber by 18th century sources. This fruit is actually a melon (Cucumis flexuosus) rather than a cucumber but is flavored much like a cucumber. It comes in both green and white, has no prickles and can get very long, much longer than the 18” most authors cite. Harvested at an immature stage it would have few seeds and is much less prolific than the black spined varieties, both traits characteristic of the Turkey Cucumber. However, as it matures, it produces many seeds in a central cavity, like all melons, and will get quite a bit larger than eighteen inches long. The mature fruit is also distinctly ribbed, an attribute not cited by European garden works for the Turkey Cucumber.
In the 1768 edition of The Gardeners Dictionary Philip Miller classes the Turkey cucumber as Cucumis flexuosus, the current genus and species of the Armenian melon. However, Abercrombie, in The Universal gardener and botanist (1797) lists the Turkey Cucumber and the Serpent Cucumber as distinct varieties, describing the Serpent Cucumber as: “Cucumis flexuosus – Serpent Cucumber, or Melon. With sublobate, angulate leaves, and very long, slender, cylindric, furrowed, curved fruit…some of which grow six or seven feet in length.” This is certainly what is now often known as the Armenian melon. Burr also lists the Turkey Cucumber and the Serpent Melon (C. flexuosus) as distinct varieties in Field and Garden Vegetables of America(1865)
Another possible, and perhaps more likely, identification of the Turkey cucumber is the seedless or parthenocarpic cucumber, generally called the English cucumber today. It is a long, slender and essentially spineless cucumber grown as a hothouse plant to prevent pollination and seed formation. Pollinated fruit contains seed, but much smaller and far fewer than the black spined varieties. One of its most distinctive characteristic is a restricted neck, on the blossom end of the fruit, which agrees with Burr’s description of the Turkey cucumber.
The Turkey cucumber acquired by John Custis in Williamsburg was certainly the Armenian melon (Cucumis flexuosus). On Aug. 28, 1737 Custis writes to Peter Collinson in London: the seeds of the long cucumber you sent me; I planted but none came up; I gave my son 3 seeds which all came up; notwithstanding the excessive drouth he had one more than 3 feet long; to the astonishment of many; several people rid many miles to see it…there are more people begd some of the seed; then 10 cucumbers can afford. A memo in Hortus Collinsonianus, p. 60 reads: I sent seeds of a Turkey cucumber to Mr. Custis in Virginia, in the year 1737; it produced a fruit three feet long and fourteen inches round; grew in one night three inches in length, and people came twenty miles round to visit it. This fruit was a local sensation and is mentioned in the August 12-19, 1737 edition of the Virginia Gazette: There grew, this summer, in the Garden of Mr. Daniel Parke Custis, in New-Kent County, a Cucumber, of the Turkey or Morocco Kind, which measured a Yard in Length, and near 14 Inches round the thickest Part of it…They are ribb’d almost like a Musk-melon, colour’d like a Water-melon; and taste much like the common Cucumber. Several curious Persons have been to view them, the like having never been seen in these Parts before.
The following year another article appears in the Virginia Gazette (Aug. 25 - Sept. 1, 1738) in response to an article that appears in a Boston newspaper concerning the cucumber article in the Gazette. Mr. Parks begins the article with a quote from the Boston paper and then goes on to insure the veracity of the now famous Virginia cucumber. Last Week was cut out of a Garden belonging to Capt. Wells of Cambridge…a Water Melon, that was in circumference, both Ways, a Yard and an Eighth Part of a Yard, which weighed 36 Pounds and 10 ounces…This Rarity we send to Virginia, in Return for their Cucumber. If the Author of this Paragraph was ingenuous and candid in his Account, we receive his Present very kindly: But if he intended wittidly to impose upon us an overgrown imaginary Water-melon, for a real Cucumber, supposing our Account to be false…we must beg leave to assure him, that the Description we gave of that Cucumber was true; and that from the Seed of it, and others of the same Kind, abundance of them have been propagated in several Gentlemens Gardens this Year, particularly in That of Mr. Thomas Nelson, Merchant, in York Town, who has one in his Garden, which measur’d (this Day) 40 inches in Length; and has several others 3 Feet long: He had some this Year which exceeded any of these in Size; but being ripe and wither’d are now considerably shrunk. There are Two Species of them, one Green, the other White; the Green ones are largest, but both of ‘em eat well. As we have undeniable Proofs of the Truth of this Account, we venture to send it to the Northward, for Improvement, or Admiration. Mr. Parks
These mammoth cucumbers generate not only national news, but international news as is evident in a Dec. 15, 1768 edition of the Virginia Gazette. Liverpool, Sept 9 There is now growing in the garden of Peter Holme, Esq: at Green Bank, near this town, a cucumber produced from a seed brought from Turkey, which measures 25 inches and a half in length, and 28 inches in circumference, and weighs upwards of 30 pounds.
Thomas Jefferson, who was a great admirer of the cucumber, does not encounter this plant until 1826. In an April 22 letter to George Divers concerning the Serpentine cucumber he has received from Leonard Case he writes: You perhaps noted in the newspapers some 3. or 4. months ago the mention of cucumbers in a particular garden in Ohio which measured 2 ½ f. and 3. f. in length. Having a friend in that quarter I wrote and requested him to procure and send me some seed from one of the identical cucumbers. He has sent it, and to multiply the chances of securing it, I send you 9. seeds, assured that nobody will be more likely to succeed than yourself. In this case, Jefferson is almost certainly referring to the Armenian melon, which is often called the Serpentine or Serpent cucumber today.
The gherkin is of African origin and was probably introduced to the West Indies by the Portuguese. As late as 1919 it was listed as a native of the West Indies in Stutevant's Edible Food Plants of the World. It is described by John Ray in his Historia Plantarum in 1688 and John Evelyn in his translation of De La Quintinye's The Complete Gardener (1693). Evelyn describes it as a variety used for pickles, "which last are commonly called Cornichons, or horned Cucumbers, and in English, Crumplings, and Guerkins." Evelyn again lists the "Gerckems" for pickling in Acetaria(1699) but it seems to play a very minor role in the English garden. Minton Collins, who kept a store in Richmond, is credited with first introducing the Gherkin to North America in 1792 (Vegetables of New York vol. I part IV, 1937). Bernard McMahon, inAmerican Gardener's Calendar (1806) lists the Gherkin as the "Round Prickly." It is remotely possible that the Gherkin was known in the colonies but not listed under this name. Thomas Jefferson, in a 1813 letter to his brother Randolph Jefferson, recommends to his sister Gardener and Hepburn's The American Gardener as a guide for her to use in the garden and remarks, "she will not find the term Gerkin in the book. It is that by which we distinguish the very small pickling cucumber."
There are several cucumbers found in English literature that are not named in Virginia accounts but may have been here under other names. The Cluster Cucumber or Early Cluster Cucumber is first mentioned by Richard Bradley inDictionarium botanicum (1728) and is listed by many English authors throughout the 18th century as well as Bernard McMahon in this country in American Gardener's Calendar (1806). It is a black spine cucumber, 5 - 6" long with a blunt, angular fruit produced close to the base of the plant in clusters and is a very early producer. It is best known as a very early season cucumber and is possibly the cucumber advertised by Peter Bellet in 1799 as "early cucumber" or the cucumber ordered by Robert Carter Nicholas in 1771 as "Earliest Cucumber. "While not specifically cited in Virginia it is known in North America prior to revolution. The April 5, 1764 edition of the Boson News-letter includes an advertisement for the “short cluster cucumber” by “Anna Johnson at her shop.”
The Early Frame Cucumber appears late in the 18th or early in the 19th century and is an even earlier producer than the cluster. This cucumber may descend from the short prickly cucumber. McMahon lists the Early Frame in 1806 and Jefferson lists it in 1818.
Although the culture of these plants is beyond the scope of this work two points are worth making for their presentation in our gardens. Cucumbers are commonly grown on sticks and this is cited by many authors as beneficial to the plant. Richard Bradley in Dictionarium Botanicum (1728) writes, "to have the best Fruit from them, is to let them use the Claspers Nature has given them, and let them run up sticks." Here in Williamsburg John Randolph writes in A Treatise on Gardening (1793), "If Cucumbers are struck as you do pease, they will run to a great height, and will bear till the frosts destroy them."
There is an ancient debate about the wisdom of soaking cucumber seeds before you plant them and what material they should be soaked in. Thomas Hill in The Gardener's Labyrinth (1577) relates the wisdom of Rutilius, who says the seeds should be soaked in sheep's milk, Pliny who soaks them in water and honey, and Columella who soaks them in sugared water. In all cases it will, according to Hill, "cause the plants, after their perfect growth, to yeeld cowcumbers, both sweet, tender, white, and most pleasant." Stephen Switzer in The Practical Kitchen Gardener(1727) comments on the wisdom of Theophrastus who steeps cucumber seeds in milk, liquid honey or other sweet waters to increase the sweetness of the fruit saying that moderns deny it but everyone agrees that it adds to the quickness of its growth. Thomas Jefferson experiments with soaking cucumber seeds and records in 1774, "Cucumbers the same as No. 6 only that these were steeped in water from Mar. 31 till this day [Apr. 5] when they were sprouted."