While famous as a briny pickle and soothing eye mask, cucumbers have been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years and eaten for just as long. But did you know they are made up of more than 95% water and are actually a fruit?
Originating in Egypt and India, this cool, watery member of the Cucurbitaceae family is now one of the most cultivated plants in the world, grown commercially and in backyard veggie patches alike.
Faiths and Culture
Cucumbers have been cultivated in Egypt and India for more than 3000 years, and have since developed a rich international history. Believed to be eaten by the people of Ur, an ancient Mesopotamian city now known as south Iraq, cucumbers were also mentioned in the Bible as a food eaten by the Israelites in Egypt and even Cleopatra was known to eat them to maintain her beauty!
The cucumber quickly spread across Europe and was grown by the Ancient Greeks, then the Romans, who believed cucumbers were a source of physical and spiritual strength and were eaten by soldiers. They were introduced into England in the 14th century, but were forgotten about during the War of the Roses in the 15th century, and were reintroduced when Henry VII came into power in the 16th century. Henry VII also owned the first gardening manual, which said that cucumbers shook with fear at the sound of thunder!
Cucumbers have also been used in traditional medicines across cultures, and their medicinal qualities are still being researched today. The seeds and leaves were used primarily in traditional Indian medicine to treat sunburn and swelling under the eyes, while Chinese medicine used the leaves, stems, and roots as in the treatment of diarrhea, gonorrhea, and as an antioxidant. Unripe cucumber juice was thought to have a laxative effect in British medicine, while the seeds were used to kill tapeworms, and treat colds and bowel diseases.
In more recent times, cucumbers and cucumber extracts have been found to have a range of cosmetic and medicinal uses, and are used in facial treatments to reduce puffy eyes, dark circles, and to tighten skin. The seeds can also be used to treat constipation and fevers, and to potentially treat ulcers. Cucumbers also contain biochemical compounds called cucurbitacin, with research currently being conducted into their use in combating cancer and aging. However, cucumbers may cause allergic reactions for those with ragweed allergies so start with small doses just in case.
With their high water content, cucumbers are quite low in calories, and have been used extensively in cooking. Primarily eaten raw, they are a great addition to salads, cold soups, smoothies, and dips, and are popular in Indian chutneys and pulse dishes.
Pickled cucumbers are another widely popular dish, usually with brine, vinegar, sugar, and a mix of spices. While they have been pickled since 2400 BC by the Mesopotamians, more recently several species of pickling cucumber have been specifically bred to be shorter, thicker, and have thicker skin similar to that of gherkins.
Interested in trying something new with cucumbers? Have a look at these great recipes:
Preferring a subtropical climate, cucumbers grow best in full sun and warm soil. As an annual, creeping vine, cucumbers can be grown vertically with a trellis or along the ground, where they have a bush-like appearance. Because of their high water content, cucumbers need constant watering and well-drained soil to prevent root rot and mildewy, yellow leaves.
Cucumbers can also be great companion plants for beans and lettuce, and grow well with peas, carrots, sunflowers, chives, onions, and many others. Growing dill alongside cucumbers attracts insects that attack pests, and spraying cucumbers with sugar water helps attract bees and increase fruit setting. However, they are a bad companion for potatoes, sage and other strong-smelling herbs.
If you are looking to make your own pickled cucumbers, it’s best to pickle them just after they are harvested to retain their crispy texture.
Pickling is just one of many popular preserving techniques that can be used (for more than just cucumbers) to extend the life of your food and reduce waste. If you’re interested in learning more about some of the older techniques that have recently re-gained popularity to help with excess food from the garden or pantry, have a look at our new monthly series Larder Love and of course our weekly recipes.
Happy growing, preserving, cooking and eating!