History of Cucumbers

The cucumber (Cucumis sativus) is a member of the Cucurbita, or gourd, family. They are believed to be native to India and have been cultivated in western Asia for about 4,000 years. The cucumber spread to the Mediterranean and was especially beloved by the Romans who eventually introduced the vegetable/fruit to Europe. Cucumbers were spread to the New World by the Spanish. The native-Americans began cultivating them along with other gourds like pumpkins and squash.

Drawing of a Cucumber

Cucumbers are mentioned twice in the Bible: Numbers 11:5 and Isaiah 1:8. It is believed that cucumbers were first pickled in the Tigris Valley almost 3,000 years ago. Early pickles were placed in brine and later new spices were added and new dishes like chutney, mustard and piccalilli were made.

Cucumbers are also known as gherkins. The word gherkin comes from the Persian word for cucumber: “angarah.” The word "gherkin" in English often refers to cucumbers in their pickled form.

The Romans not only cultivated the cucumber, but also grew them in greenhouses so that Emperor Tiberius could enjoy them out of season. It is said that he ate cucumbers every day of the year and along with Julius Caesar was also a huge fan of pickles. Cleopatra is said to have credited pickles for at least some of her beauty. Other famous pickle lovers include George Washington, Napoleon, Queen Elizabeth I, and Amerigo Vespucci (for whom America was named).

During the 1600s many people in England developed a dislike of fresh, uncooked vegetables. They thought that if the vegetables were not cooked they were no better than food for animals. The cucumber gained the nickname of “cowcumber” and even when fresh vegetables regained popularity the cucumber remained unpopular for some time because of the unfortunate nickname.

While cucumbers have been cultivated for thousands of years, they were not improved and hybridized until the late 1800s. Varieties that are well-known today stem from these hybrids. There are many varieties of cucumber to choose from. They range from small cucumbers designed for sweet pickles to large cucumbers over two feet long.

Like other members of the gourd family, cucumbers are relatively easy to grow and are adaptable to most growing zones. They can be grown as a sprawling plant or grown on a trellis in even the smallest garden.

Cucumbers are generally eaten raw in salads or pickled, but there are many lesser known recipes with cooked cucumbers. Sweet or dill pickles, relishes, sauces, and dressings can be made.

Touted for their health benefits, cucumbers are considered a great diet food because they lack fat and are low in calories. They also contain beneficial nutrients. Cucumbers are used in soaps, lotions, and facial masks.

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Sources:
University of Arizona: B's Cucumber Pages: A Brief History of Cucumbers
BBC H2G2: Pickles

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