Cucumbers: Cat Assassins?
You may have seen videos going around on social media showing cats being terrified by Cucumis sativus sneaking up on them. While this may sound like a vicious predator of the domestic feline, in reality, it’s the modest cucumber. While not an actual danger to your cat, although cats may disagree, the cucumber is a creeping vine plant member of the Cucurbitaceae family, which includes pumpkins, zucchini, and various melons.
While cucumbers, as stars of cat videos, are a recent phenomenon, they’ve been in existence for a long time. In fact, cucumber seeds discovered in Burma-Thailand date back to 9,750 B.C.E. The cultivation of these India natives has a history dating back nearly 3,000 years. Today they’re grown in various countries including China, Germany, Mexico, Spain, Turkey, the UK, and the USA.
As you can see, cucumbers grow in a wide variety of places, and this includes your own garden. If you want to try your hand at these, even if you’re a beginner, this is a great garden plant to start with. As you begin to plant cucumbers, find a spot that’s in full sun and has well-drained soil. Soil type isn’t enormously important as cucumbers are fairly tolerant of many soil types, but will require the addition of organic fertilizer once flowering begins. However, they aren’t tolerant of freezes and should only be planted once all danger of frost for your area has passed. It’s easiest to sow seeds directly into your garden in small hills, with 2-3 seeds per hill, and spaced 3’ apart. While they can be planted in rows (spaced 2’ apart), placing them in individual small hills allows the vines room to grow and wander. Using a trellis for growing vines is a great option for both row and hill plantings.
Bitter or Burpless?
As your plants grow, be sure to adequately water, but not overwater your plants. Too much water, uneven watering, poor soil fertility, acidic soil, and large temperature swings can cause cucumbers to develop a bitter taste. All members of the Cucurbitaceae family produce chemical compounds known as cucurbitacins, which cause them to taste bitter. The cucurbitacins can become more concentrated, meaning the bitter taste becomes even more pronounced, when the plant is stressed, such as from less than ideal watering, soil conditions, and temperature swings, as noted above. The cucurbitacins are also what make some people burp. So, if you see varieties of cucumbers labeled “burpless” that means they have extremely low levels of cucurbitacins. These varieties make the best slicing and salad cucumbers. Those used for pickling are the cucumber varieties that have higher levels of cucurbitacins.
Picking, Pests, and Problems
To harvest your crop of cucumbers, pick them before the seeds become hard and the fruit is still immature. Look for fruit that is firm and uniformly green (don’t allow them to turn yellow). Cucumber fruit can grow quickly and the plants should be checked every 2-3 days. While checking for fruit also check your plants for any evidence of damage from wilt or insects. If you find you have wilt, which is a bacterial disease that lives in the cucumber beetle and caused by their attack, it may be too late to save your plants. A good method of defense is to remove beetles manually from your plants and also invite predatory insects into your garden to eat the beetles, as well as aphids, as these will also cause damage to cucumber plants. One of the most proactive things you can do, during the non-growing season, is to tidy up your garden, as the beetles can overwinter in the leftover garden material. Cleaning out your garden before winter sets in, and rotating your plants in the spring, will help stop the spread of diseases.
Once you have grown a vigorous lot of cucumbers, now’s the time to enjoy the many health benefits they provide. An average cucumber (300 grams and peel included) offers 45 calories, 0 fat, 2 grams of protein, and 11 grams of carbohydrates (2 grams of which is dietary fiber). Cucumbers are an excellent source of Vitamin K-1, and a good source of Vitamin C, magnesium, manganese, and potassium. They also offer Vitamins A and all the B’s (sans B-12) and the minerals non-heme iron, copper, phosphorus, zinc, and selenium.
Cucumbers contain a flavanol called fisetin. Fisetin, due to its anti-inflammatory capabilities, has been found to stop memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease. In addition to the fisetin, cucumbers contain several other phytochemicals (flavonols/antioxidants), such as quercetin, apigenin, luteolin, and kaempferol, which also help reduce inflammation and the risk for certain types of cancer.
While cucumbers do a body good by eating them, they can also be used externally. To reduce puffiness in the eye area, lay slices of chilled cucumber over your eyes for 15-20 minutes and reap the benefits of the cucumber’s high water content, Vitamin C, and caffeic acid. Plus, cucumbers can be used to soothe sunburns. Maybe that’s why it’s nice to be as cool as a cucumber.
Time to Eat
Enjoying cucumbers in a culinary aspect is easy as they’re wonderful simply sliced and covered with a little vinegar, perhaps a few slices of red onion, and a dash of salt and pepper. To go beyond that, cucumbers can make perfect replacements for chips when eating your favorite dip and they also make delicious chilled soups and beautiful salads. Here’s one of my favorite salad recipes to try:
Citrus Mint Cucumber Salad
4 medium tomatoes or 1.5 lbs. of cherry tomatoes, coarsely chopped
4 medium cucumbers, coarsely chopped
1 white onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh basil
2 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh mint
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
Juice from 2 lemons
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients in a bowl
Chill for 2 hours and serve
My favorite thing about this recipe is that I never make it the same way twice. I have used several different varieties of cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions (even using shallots before) and sometimes I slice them, chop them, or have even blended them into a dip. I have also adjusted the herbs based on what I have growing in the garden, even throwing in cilantro from time to time. When I don’t have lemons, I will use limes, oranges, tangerines, and even grapefruit. I omit the crushed red pepper if I know those who will be eating it aren’t heat fans. I have also used chipotle and ancho before just for a different flavor.
If I want to add a Greek flair I throw in some feta and black olives and use red onion instead of white. The only things I keep the same in this recipe are that I always use cucumbers, tomatoes, mint, fresh citrus juice, olive oil, and salt and pepper. The rest, well that’s up to you to mix and match. So let your cucumber creativity flow! And if you have a couple slices left over feel free to place them on your eyes and relax for a spell…maybe while the salad chills in the fridge.
Whether you are keeping your cat on its toes, creating a viney maze in your garden, or using cucumbers in the kitchen or your home spa, enjoy all the many benefits they have to offer. Easy to grow and even easier to enjoy, cucumbers are a wonderful addition in your planting plots and your cooking pots. So take care, my friends, stay cool, and grow on!
Apeda Agri Exchange. Agriculture & Processes Food Products export Development Authority. Ministry of Commerce & Industry, Government of India. http://agriexchange.apeda.gov.in/home.aspx
Browning, S. February, 2014. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Lancaster County. Cucumbers – 2014 The Year of Cucumber. http://lancaster.unl.edu/hort/articles/2014/Cucumber.shtml
ChooseMyPlate.gov. US Department of agriculture. https://www.choosemyplate.gov/
Currais, A., et al. January 27, 2014. Aging Cell. Modulation of p25 and inflammatory pathways by fisetin maintains cognitive function in Alzheimer’s disease transgenic mice. Natural plant compound prevents Alzheimer’s disease in mice. Salk News. http://www.salk.edu/news-release/natural-plant-compound-prevents-alzheimers-disease-in-mice/
Natural resource Conservation Services. 2017. US Department of Agriculture. Plants Database. https://plants.usda.gov/java/
University of Illinois Extension. 2017. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Cucumber. https://extension.illinois.edu/veggies/cucumber.cfm