A Lesson on Heirloom Cucumber Plants

Learning more about heirloom cucumber plants, such as Lemon Cucumber, and the history of the heirloom varieties leads most people to growing cucumbers.

| May/June 2014

Heirloom cucumbers

Cucumbers are one of the great summer fruits that we think of exclusively as a vegetable. We enjoy cucumbers in summertime salads, and as an accompaniment in the form of pickles and relish for hamburgers and hot dogs. Americans are more or less split on whether to eat the cucumber fresh or pickled, although the trend is clearly moving toward more fresh consumption with our contemporary focus on fresh vegetables and less salt.

Give or take, we eat just under 10 pounds of cucumbers a year — not a large amount compared to crops like tomatoes or potatoes, but enough to keep American farmers producing a couple billion pounds a year. The United States is the fourth largest cucumber producer in the world, lagging behind China, which produces more than 40 billion pounds annually.

As a cucumber grower, I eat more pickles than fresh cucumbers because I make my own pickles. There’s nothing better than opening a briny jar of well-cured green pickles in the dead of winter and savoring that intense salty-sour flavor with distinct accents of garlic.

Cuke beginnings

Cucumbers were brought to the New World by the Spanish — the vegetable was supposedly cultivated in 1494 by Columbus — and they appear as early as 1539 cultivated by Native Americans in Florida. By one means or another, they were in Virginia by the late 16th or early 17th century. Not long after the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1629, if not earlier, cucumbers were being grown in Massachusetts. William Bradford, governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, in the 1650 writing, A Descriptive and Historical Account of New England in Verse, mentions cucumbers as among vegetables grown in the colony’s gardens.

By the 18th century, English gardeners had been raising cucumbers for three seasons. According to Phillip Miller’s 1731 Gardeners Dictionary, cucumbers can be raised under glass in hot beds, under “hand-glasses” outdoors, and “in the common ground for a late crop, or to pickle.”

In 1804, Philadelphia seedsman Bernard McMahon (or M’Mahon) published a catalog that featured eight varieties of cucumber, including Early Frame, Green Cluster and Green Roman. The Shakers’ 1835 catalog from Enfield, Connecticut, listed Early Cluster, Extra Long, Long Green and Early Short Green. Vilmorin, the French seed producer, mentioned 30 varieties in 1883.

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