The straightness of cucumbers…

Here’s a picture starter  to get you in the right mood for this week’s post. Any guesses as what it might be? Answer at the end.

Did you know we had a cucumber industry in Britain? or that we’ve had one for several centuries?  Either way you should know it’s facing extinction because  of cheap foreign imports undercutting British growers.  There is now less than 100 hectares dedicated to the crop – the lowest figure for over 100 years. komkommer-960x660




The industry is still largely based in the Lea Valley where it was established in the 19thc  and, of course, it is fighting back as best it can.  Its latest wheeze is Cucumber Day held at Waltham Abbey, complete with a ‘decorate the cucumber’ competition and prizes for the largest fruit!

komkommer-960x660You can find out more about the modern industry and Cucumber Day by following the links from:

Home 12

komkommer-960x660But what’s  the history of this industry?  When did the cucumber arrive in Britain? When did it enter mass production? How big can a cucumber grow? And why do people always seem to prefer their cucumbers to be straight?

Cucumis melo L. [as Chate] cantaloupe, Kharbuja, Musk melon, muskmelon Alpino, P., Vesling, J., De plantis Aegypti liber, editio altera emendatior, p. 117 (1640)

Cucumis melo L. [as Chate]
from Alpino & Vesling, De plantis Aegypti liber,  (1640)

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the taxonomy of cucumbers is often confusing and mutable. This has meant there is quite a lot of confusion about the origins and earliest references to them.

It’s often thought cucumbers can be seen in Egyptian wall paintings, and that they are mentioned in the Bible in connection with the exodus from Egypt, with the Book of Numbers 11:5 reading: “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.”  

Unfortunately its probably not that simple, and these fruits were probably not the cucumber as we know it, but a small  green-fruited wild chate melon Curcumis melo var chate.

The  misunderstanding probably arose when the Bible was translated into English in the 16th no-one knew about chate melons and assumed the Hebrew kishuim was the cucumber they knew about and grew.   The problem applies to other old translations of ancient texts as well and cucumber should be understood as referring to these chate melons instead. We can’t even turn to the archaeobotanical evidence either because  the seeds of the wild cucumber and the chate melon are virtually indistinguishable.cucumber

This is a bit annoying because I found  a lovely story about the Egyptians concocting a drink from  cucumbers which I was going to repeat.  Nevertheless, despite the fact they were probably these wild melons instead, I’ll repeat it anyway! Apparently the drink was started by cutting a hole in a ripe fruit, breaking up the insides with a sharp stick to liquefy it, then plugging the hole and  burying it in the ground for several days presumably to ferment, before it was exhumed and drunk.  That  last sentence should probably be followed with the warning: “Don’t try this at home.”cucumber

Cucumis sativus L. [as Cucumis hardwickii Royle] cucumber, Khira Royle, J.F., Illustrations of the botany and other branches of the natural history of the Himalayan Mountains and of the flora of Cashmere, Plates, vol. 2: t. 47 (1839)

Cucumis hardwickii [now Cucumis sativus  ]
from J F. Royle, Illustrations of the botany and other branches of the natural history of the Himalayan Mountains and of the flora of Cashmere, vol.2 (1839)

Instead the modern cucumber is an annual, thought to have  originated in the  valleys of the Himalayas. Its probable ancestor is  Cucumis  sativus formerly hardwickii,  a small  spiny fruit which  is also extremely bitter. These natural defenses deter predatory insects and other pests.  Archaeological evidence suggests the cucumber is likely to have been  brought into  cultivation in the Indus Valley at least 3000 years ago, and  spread from there  into the Near East by the seventh century B.C, and from there into the ancient mediterranean world.   cucumber

Documentary evidence suggests that  the Romans were enthusiastic cucumber growers and spread their cultivation throughout the empire.  Both Pliny the Elder and Columella wrote about them and the emperor Tiberius is reported to have been so fond of them that he had the equivalent of cold frames built to extend the growing season.  Certainly cucumber seeds have been found at several Roman sites in London.

from Lyte's New Herbal, 157x

from Lyte’s New Herbal, 157x

Cucumbers merit a mention in the  first printed Herbal – The grete herball – of 1526, and get many short comments in medical texts through the 16thc. Henry Lyte’s New Herbal [see post 24th Oct 2014] lists several sorts and suggests that “The iuyce of the barke and roote of wilde Cucumber, doth also purge fleme, and cholerique, and waterish humours, & is good for such as haue the Dropsie” as well as  calming the pain of gout and toothache.

We can see how well they have become established in the garden by this period by their appearance in all the major gardening texts. The earliest is  Thomas Hill’s Gardeners Labyrinth [see post 3rd Jan 2015] which gives  instructions for their cultivation, including the suggestion that the seeds should be “steeped in milke or luke warme water for a night, and committed to the Earth, vnder a warme ayre” so that they ” do farre speedier breake, and appeare aboue ground.”

Passe, C. van de, Hortus floridus, fasicle pars altera, t. 90-91, fig. 91 (1614)

Crispin van de Passe,  Hortus floridus, (1614)

Their ubiquity can be confirmed by the way that  cucumbers were also frequently used as comparators ….”Of forme like a long Peare, or rather for the crookednesse like a Cucumer of the lesser sort” [Fynes Morrison, An itinerary, 1617]….  “It was of the bignesse and fashion of a  Cucumber …not unlike a Cucumber in shape [ Purchas his pilgrimes, 1609] …it has a fruit like the wilde Cucumber, but blacker [John Gerard].

Curcumis vulgaris, the ordinary Cowcumber from Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris, 1629

“Curcumis vulgaris, the ordinary Cowcumber”  from Paradisi in sole , 1629

By the early 17thc John Parkinson has a page of notes about cucumbers which is quite revealing. Firstly he  describes the way the plant grows, then he lists 7 different kinds although none is described as “ordinary Cowcumber’ which is illustrated. There are “the long green”;  “the short cowcumber” [ helpfully described as being “short and of an equal bigness in the body, and an unequal bigness at both ends”];  the long yellow [“which is yellowish from the beginning and more yellow when it is  ripe” & which  it has been “measured to be 13 inches long” but must not be confused with “the small long cucumber”;  the “early  ripe French”; “the Dantzig kind”; and lastly “the Muscovy kind”.

Curcumis hispanicus, the long yellow Spanish Cowcumber from Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris, 1629

“Curcumis hispanicus, the long yellow Spanish Cowcumber” from Paradisi in sole 162

In his section on its uses we can see how widespread not only was there cultivation but also the sharing of their culinary and medical uses.

from Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris, 1629

from Parkinson’s Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris, 1629


The 1633 edition of John Gerard’s Herbal is even more complex, with a lengthy chapter on Cucumbers “some greater, others lesser; some of the Garden, some wilde; some of one fashion, and some of another”.

The Citrull Cucumber from Thomas Johnson's edition of Gerard;s Herbal 1633

The Citrull Cucumber from Thomas Johnson’s edition of Gerard’s Herbal 1633

The Adders Cucumber from Thomas Johnson's edition of Gerard;s Herbal 1633

The Adders Cucumber from Thomas Johnson’s edition of Gerard’s Herbal 1633














Bonelli, Giorgio, Hortus Romanus juxta Systema Tournefortianum, vol. 1: t. 63 (1783-1816)

from Georgio Bonelli,  Hortus Romanus juxta Systema Tournefortianum,vol.1 (1783-1816)

Then as now, cucumbers were eaten raw and pickled.  The mid-17thc saw several varieties of cucumbers appearing on the first seedsmen’s lists, and gardening books like Stephen Blake’s The compleat gardeners practice of 1664, giving very detailed instructions for the cultivation of the crop, and  but this did not make them universally popular.

Although Samuel Pepys in 1661 talked of opening a opened a pot of “Girkins”—”which are rare things”—that had been a present from a sea captain friend and probably brought over from Holland – a couple of years later  in August 1663 he reports the alarming news that “Mr Newburne was “dead of eating cowcumbers,” and that he’d heard of another person dying of similar causes a few days before.

from the 1855 edition of The Task, illustration by Birkett Foster

from the 1855 edition of The Task, illustration by Birkett Foster


Dr Johnson obviously hated them: Cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing. However the poet William Cowper obviously loved them and devoted a long section on his major poem The Task to them and their cultivation .

“to raise the prickly and green-coated gourd,                                                                                      So grateful to the palate, and when rare                                                                                                   So coveted, else base and disesteem’d –                                                                                                  Food for the vulgar merely – is an art                                                                                            That toiling ages have but just matured”

Cucumbers, Part I: Poetry

from Richard Badley's, The Gentleman and Gardener's Kalendar, 1720

from Richard Badley’s, The Gentleman and Gardener’s Kalendar, 1720

Cowper managed to raise his ‘cucumbers when they were ‘rare’ ie out of season by using a cold frame, and this option was soon available not just to market gardeners and the middle class. It was soon supplemented, of course, by the greenhouse.  The value of out of season crops had of course long been recognized. As Malcolm Thick shows in The Neat House Gardens (1998) London’s market gardeners had been raising crops very profitably like  this since at least the mid-17thc, using bell glasses and glass lights and frames.

By the later 18thc cultivation was down to a fine art, so fine in fact that at least one professional grower, James McPhail, Gardener to Lord Hawkesbury, wrote a 314 page  A Treatise on the Culture of the Cucumber  in 1794. You can read it in full at:

A treatise on the culture of the cucumber, 1794

from James McPhail’s  A treatise on the culture of the cucumber, 1794

Much of the book was taken up with incredibly detailed descriptions of the weather and every task that was carried out. It reveals the extraordinary dedication there must have been to perfecting the crop.komkommer-960x660

Of course,  it is, as so often, to John Claudius Loudon that we should turn for potted history of horticultural advice about cucumber growing (if potted is the appropriate phrase for such a voluminous writer!)  His Encyclopaedia of gardening, dedicates  12 densely packed pages of tiny print with extracts from all the leading garden writers of the previous 40 or 50 years.komkommer-960x660

Loudon tells us that the cucumber is “cultivated generally and extensively, in forcing-frames and in the open air, and especially near large cities and towns.  In Hertfordshire home fields are annually seen covered with cucumbers without the aid of dung or glass, the produce of which is sent to the metropolis for pickling.  In March, cucumbers fetch in the London market a guinea a dozen; in August and September 1 penny a dozen.  The village of Sandy, Bedfordshire, has been known to furnish 10,000 bushels of picking cucumbers in one week.”cucumber

But Loudon wasn’t the only writer on cucumbers at that time.  At least three professional growers published lengthy [but sadly largely unillustrated]  sets of instructions.

from A treatise on an improved mode of cultivating the cucumber and melon, so as to produce early melons and cucumbers all the year, with less trouble and expense than by the methods usually practised. With directions for growing and forcing asparagus and sea-kale; and for destroying wood-lice

from George Mill’s, A treatise on an improved mode of cultivating the cucumber and melon etc, 1842

Thomas Watkins ‘many years foreman with Mr Grange of Hackney’ wrote “The Art of Promoting the Growth of the Cucumber and Melon” in 1824.

George Mills who was gardener to the Rothschilds at Gunnersbury Park wrote an 101 page account dedicated largely to the growing of cucumbers which had over 70 other professional gardeners as subscribers.  Like McPhail, Mills also included a very detailed  daily diary of his observations.

Thomas Moore of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Regents Park wrote The Theory and Practice applied to the cultivation of the Cucumber in the Winter Season in 1844.

If  you want to know more then you read or download them at:

fromTheory and practice, applied to the cultivation of the cucumber

from, Theory and practice, applied to the cultivation of the cucumber, 1847

With cheaper glass and Loudon’s own improved glazing bars  for greenhouses, larger and larger glasshouses could soon be constructed  and from Victorian times onwards, cheap labour and cheap coal meant that cucumbers,  could be commercially produced under glass in England all year round. And commercial cultivation led, of course,to fierce competition and constant attempts to improve the quality of the strains grown.

By 1856 when The great French nurseryman Philippe Andre  de Vilmorin wrote a book on vegetable gardening, he was able to list 46 kinds of cucumber including some clearly of English origins such as Syon House, Maid of Kent, Webbs Invincible, & Cheltenham Surprise. His book was translated and  edited by William Robinson in 1885.  The 1920 edition includes dozens of varieties and sorts of all kinds and can be found at:

But clearly the cucumbers themselves, however good their breeding,  weren’t perfect and in particular their tendency to grow in a non-linear way seems to have upset George Stephenson, of railway fame.

Stephenson lived, after his second marriage in 1819, at Tapton House, a few miles south of Sheffield in the neighbourhood of his principal coalmines.  He  was an ardent gardener and apparently became frustrated with getting crooked fruit from his cucumbers.  So he decided to do something about it, and began maturing each cucumber in a glass tube measuring about a foot in length and with a diameter of about two inches.  These somewhat resembled test tubes, with a slight curvature on one side and with one end sealed with a knob.

from Gardeners Chronicle, 1857

from Gardeners Chronicle, 1857

In clear molded glass they cost 1s 9d a pound at the glasshouse and 2s 4d in flint-glass. They soon went into mass production.   His early biographer, Samuel Smiles, noted…



You can still see one at Chesterfield Museum and another in the museum of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers of which he was president.

Stephenson wasn’t the only person to devise a technique or gadgetry for making cucumbers grow long and straight, as will be clear from another post soon.  But you do have to wonder why people were so obsessed with stopping the fruit being curly… after all it doesn’t affect the taste. Perhaps it’s to do with the fact that your picture starter for 10 was an 1815 silver-plated version of the gadget below…..Stephenson’s mechanical [altho not steam-driven!] cucumber slicer – which of course could not be operated without non-curly fruit!

The true lover of the cucumber sandwich should be forever indebted.

But I’m running close to my self-imposed word limit again [otherwise almost every post would potentially be a mini-War and Peace] so I’m afraid that, other than telling you that there is a lot of controversy about the size of the world’s biggest ever cucumber, you will have to wait for more cucumber-related trivia until another post soon….






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3 Responses to The straightness of cucumbers…

  1. Harry Paris says:

    Contrary to your statement “Documentary evidence suggests that the Romans were enthusiastic cucumber growers ……”, there is no evidence whatsoever that Romans knew cucumbers, not Pliny, not Columella, and not Tiberius. Contrary to common belief, the Roman cucumis was not cucumber. What the Romans did know and enjoy greatly were the snake melons. Three articles in the scientific journal Annals of Botany, vol. 100, pages 1441-1457 (2007), vol. 108, pages 471-484 (2011) and vol. 109, pages 117-126 (2012), give the history of the snake melons and cucumbers. Annals of Botany, by the way, is published in London.

  2. Malcolm Thick says:

    Early references to growing cucumbers.
    By far the best description of cucumber growing of its time was that of Richard Gardiner, a Shrewsbury market gardener and merchant in, Profitable instructions for manuring, sowing and planting of kitchen gardens, published in 1599:

    ‘The meanes to have faire large Cucumbers, & the best order for them within the Countie of Salop, or on the marches of Wales.

    About the last of Aprill, or the beginning of May when the weather prooveth to be somewhat faire & warme,then take the seedes of Cucumbers and put them in newe milke overnight. And if the next day after proove a faire Sunne shine day,take the seedes 
    and put the milke and all in a pewter platter in the heate of the Sunne three or foure houres, then put them into the earth where you would have them to growe, and they will spring and appeare above the ground within foure or fove daies. And if you do not so place them in the heate of the sunne, then the next day after their wetting in milke, set them in the earth likewise, and when they bee sprung above the ground, the snailes and wormes will 
    devoure them, except you finde meanes to prevent them. The ground upon which you sowe cucumbers seede must be very ranke and faire,where the sun giveth best heate in the garden, or most principal in a faire banke, that sheweth it selfe to the noone Sunne. If your cucumber seedes do happen to grow too thicke, then take out the woorst till they be a yard a sunder, for the more roome they have, the better they will beare the fairer fruites, you may remouve the plants of Cucumbers when they be young, and plant them in another place, convenient as aforesaid: there are sundrie other means used with horsedung to set and plant cucumbers: which is not to my liking, and which I omit, as not so good as aforesaid. And to have milons, gourds, or pumpions, do the like as is expressed heerein by cucumbers, if the spring season doe serve your purpose thereunto.’

    Gardiner’s aversion to dung as a growing medium may have been because he thought it affected the taste or it may have been on health grounds. A London gentleman called Chamberlain wrote in 1624:

    ‘some have found out a far-fetched speculation, which yet runs 
    current, and would ascribe it [i.e. spotted fever] to the 
    extraordinary quantity of cucumbers this year, which the 
    gardeners, to hasten and bring forward, used to water out of the 
    next ditches, which this dry time growing low noisome and 
    stinking, poisoned the fruit.’

    Sentiments echoed by Evelyn who wrote that not long before the end of the seventeenth century, ‘Cucumber, however dress’d, was thought fit 
    to be thrown away, being accounted little better than Poyson’.

    The Neat House gardeners in Pimlico had no quams about raising cucumbers in the late seventeenth century by digging holes and filling them with hot dung, covering the tender plants planted therein with glass nor with watering them from shallow wells on their lands. Such dung was valuable and in 1685 one Neat House landlord sought a barristers opinion on the status of the dung in cucumber holes at the end of a lease. Was it part of the soil and his, or could it be removed by the outgoing tenant? The opinion, (which cost 6d) was that the dung could be taken away.

    Malcolm Thick

  3. Malcolm Thick says:

    Thanks for this interesting piece. You mention Evelyn’s comments on gherkins. The earliest reference in print I can find is in Hill’s gardening book of 1577. Elinor Fettiplace’s cookery book of 1604 has a cucumber pickling recipe using verjiuce [cider vinegar]. They were for many years imported from the Continent (notably from Danzig). John Parkinson wrote in 1629:
    ‘The pickled Cowcumbers that come from beyond the Sea, are much 
    used with us, for sawce to meate all the Winter long. Some have 
    striven to equall them, by pickling up our Cowcumbers at the 
    later end of the yeare, when they are cheapest, taking the little 
    ones and scalding them thoroughly well,which after they put in 
    brine, with some Dill or Fenell leaves and stalkes: but these are 
    nothing comparable to the former, wee either missing of the right 
    and orderly pickling of them, or the kinde it selfe differing 
    much from ours (as I said of the Dantsicke kinde) for ours are 
    neither so tender and firme, nor so savoury as the other.’

    Despite Parkinson’s opinion, in the eighteenth century English-brewed vinegar [aleagar it should be] was used to pickle them and by the early nineteenth century English gherkins were pickled in large quantities: Sandy in Bedfordshire in the 1820s ‘has been known to furnish 10,000 bushels of pickling cucumbers in one week.’

    As cucumbers became more popular, so seedsman stocked more varieties. The London seedsmenWilliam Lucas, c.1677 and Edward Fuller in the 1680s both list only the Long, Short, and Prickly Cucmber. The Fleet Street seedsman Stephen Garraway,c.1766-74 offered additionally-
    White and Green Turkey Cucumbers

    White and Green Dutch Cucumbers.

    Malcolm Thick

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