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A Floridata Plant Profile #971 Cucumis sativus
Common Names: cucumber, pickle, gherkin
Family: Cucurbitaceae (pumpkin Family)
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Annual   Vine  Easy to grow - great for beginners! Edible Plant

cucumber on the vine
A 'Straight Eight' cucumber hangs heavy and ready to harvest.
Cucumber plants are tendril bearing vines with triangular prickly hairy leaves and yellow flowers which are either male or female. The female flowers are recognized by the swollen ovary at the base which will become the edible fruit. The flesh of cucumbers is firm and crisp, and really not very sweet, but delicious nevertheless. There are many dozens of varieties of cucumbers available to the grower (Cornucopia II lists 92). Short blocky types are favored for pickling, and longer cylindrical types are used for fresh slicing. Extremely long and slender Oriental or "burpless" cucumbers and spherical lemon cukes are also popular. Breeders have developed cucumber types that are parthenocarpic, or seedless, which develop without pollination (as long as they are isolated from normal cucumbers to prevent insects from bringing pollen to the flowers). The big commercial growers often grow gynoecious cucumbers, varieties that produce only female flowers. By having just a few male flowers in the field, commercial growers can expect very high yields more or less all at once. Home gardeners generally prefer the monoecious varieties which have male and female flowers on the same plant and tend to produce over a longer period. Small pickling cucumbers, typically immature specimens, are sometimes called gherkins. Armenian or snake cucumbers are a different species, Cucumis melo. Their fruits are ribbed and often quite long and coiled.

cucumber on the vine
Long and thin, the 'Kyota' cucumber's shape makes it easy to recognize. This cucumber is used in many Asian cuisines.
Proper selection of cucumber varieties depends on your location. Ask your local garden center or extension agent which varieties have the necessary disease resistance for your area. Here in zone 8, 'Sweet Slice' and 'Straight Eight' are excellent slicers that produce well and are resistant to local diseases. 'Kyoto' is a heavy yielding Oriental type. One of our favorites is 'Lemon' cucumber which produces a baseball sized yellow fruit that is outstanding in flavor and texture. 'Lemon' is one of the sweetest of the cukes. We like to eat them out of hand in the garden, like an apple.

Cucumbers came originally from southern Asia, but are now cultivated commercially and in home gardens throughout the world.

Cucumber plants are frost tender annuals. They usually begin bearing within 50-60 days after planting. The flowers are pollinated by bees which pick up pollen from the males flowers and carry it to the female flowers. You can grow your cukes on cages or trellises or let them sprawl along the ground.
Light: Cucumbers need full sun for best growth and production.
Moisture: Provide cucumbers with regular vegetable garden watering.
Hardiness: Cucumbers are warm weather plants, and not at all tolerant of frost. In areas with short growing seasons, start plants indoors and use black plastic mulch in the garden. In areas with long growing seasons, a second crop can be planted after midsummer for harvest before the first frost.
Propagation: Cucumber seeds are usually planted in the ground as soon as the soil is warm and all danger of frost has past. They can also be started in peat pots a few weeks before setting out, but care must be taken not to disturb the roots when transplanting. If you're growing one of the all-female varieties, you will need to plant one monoecious seed for every 8-10 gynoecious seeds.

an assortment of cucumbers
This harvest of cucumbers awaits the salad bowl at Steve's house. The dark green cucumber is 'Straight Eight', the long skinny one is 'Kyoto'. 'Lemon' is the round yellow cuke, it's an unusual and delicious variety not likely to be found in a supermarket.
Cucumbers should be picked while still young and just before they start turning yellow. Older cukes develop large, tough seeds. Mature fruits should not be allowed to remain on the vine if continuous production is desired. It is possible to harvest up to 30 pounds of cukes from a single plant.

Homegrown cukes sometimes get pickleworms - little greenish caterpillars about three quarters inch long (the larvae of a small yellowish brown moth). The pickleworms burrow into the cucumbers and eat tunnels from within. Just submerge the cukes in water for five minutes and the worms come right out. (We then drop them in the aquarium where the fish make short work of the little rascals.) When you cut up the cukes for eating you can cut around the tunnels where the pickleworms were.

Like home grown tomatoes and new potatoes, great tasting cucumbers cannot be obtained from the super market. Commercial cucumbers were developed to ripen all at once (the better to harvest); to be of uniform size and shape (the better to market); and to have thick skins (the better to keep); flavor was not a concern. And that greasy wax they're coated with ... If you want to taste just how good a cuke can be, you have to grow your own, or find a local gardener who does.

Cucumbers are usually eaten raw in salads, or sliced with onions, vinegar and salt, or they are pickled. But they can be cooked, too. Try quick sautéed cukes with dill and butter. Or a cream of cucumber soup. Or use them in stir fry. Good home grown cukes do not need to be peeled.

Every home garden should have a few cucumber plants and they are a great kid and beginner plant!

The family Cucurbitaceae has given us many useful crops. See Floridata's profile on the melons and squashes, and the one on luffa gourds.

Steve Christman 5/18/03; updated 6/8/03, 10/8/03

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