The History of the Cucumber
~ from Mother Earth News
The cucumber is an annual that originated in India, where its wild ancestor Cucumis hardwickii Royale may still be found in the subtropical valleys of the Himalayas. This ancient cucumber is bitter, as a protection against animals eating it before it is ripe. This natural bitterness still lingers in many cultivated forms, often in the skin or, in the very long-fruited varieties, in that portion of the cucumber closest to the stem.
Cucumbers were first brought under cultivation in the Indus Valley, but from there their culture spread into China and the Near East by the seventh century B.C. China and Japan developed many of the very long-fruited varieties that served as breeding stock for some of the long cucumbers we know today. The ancient Greeks were the first Europeans to cultivate the cucumber, and Roman authors have left a considerable body of information concerning its cultivation and pickling. The Romans made crock pickles with cucumbers very similar to those prepared today by the Germans and Eastern Europeans. Since cucumber seeds have been excavated from Roman sites in London, it has been assumed that the culture of the cucumber spread throughout western Europe during the Roman Empire. The oldest medieval documentation has come to light in archaeological remains found at Krakow, Poland, dating from A.D. 650 to 950. Unquestionably, such old remains would suggest that the Polish cucumber pickle and its Jewish variants have extremely long pedigrees in central Europe, reaching the Slavs even before Christianity.
In spite of its widespread cultivation in Europe, the cucumber does not grow very well in England because of the country’s cool weather and its northern latitude. This has led archaeologists to surmise that the cucumber seeds found in London may have come from imported vegetables, or from the gardens of a well-to-do villa, for Roman aristocrats maintained cold frames and heated buildings that made the cultivation of exotics possible. Yet it was not until the sixteenth century, when English aristocrats began to install cold frames and hothouses, or “stoves,” as they are still called, that the culture of the cucumber became widespread in the British Isles. Since then, the English have raised the cultivation of the greenhouse cucumber to an art form, and most of the heirloom cucumber varieties that they have preserved to this day were originally developed for forcing.
In colonial America the cucumber did very well. Our hot summers appeal to its subtropical temperament, and many of the soils along our eastern coast are of the loose, sandy kind that cucumbers like. Thus, while the cucumber was for a long time a symbol of the gentleman’s kitchen garden in England, in this country it quickly became as common as the watermelon. In fact, the two were sometimes grown together in the same patch.
~Mother Earth News