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Cool as a Cucumber

By Audrey Stallsmith

cucumber

He had been eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers, which were to be put into vials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the air in raw, inclement summers.

Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift

In the Old Testament the Israelites, sick of manna, complain to Moses, “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.”

Their use of the word “freely” is somewhat ironic, since they neglect to mention that they were also slaves in that country. Apparently we moderns aren’t the only ones who look at the past through rose-colored glasses!

It’s debatable whether the plant the Israelites call “cucumber” is the same one (cucumis sativus) we know by that name, since some archeologists deny it had reached Egypt that early. Isaiah later describes the daughter of Zion “left as a cottage in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers. . .” Although that may sound pretty idyllic, the prophet meant that his nation had been abandoned--like a hut only used during harvest-time.

The cucumber apparently originated in northern India, was introduced into China, and spread from there to the West. For all its “coolness,” the plant requires heat, so it produces better in hot climates than cool ones.

It must eventually have reached Egypt, since Cleopatra included it, along with fresh ox blood (!), in one of her recipes for a wrinkle remover. The Romans apparently devised methods for keeping the vines growing in all seasons, since the emperor Tiberius supposedly had cucumbers on his table every day of the year.

Perhaps they used the same beds of hot horse dung that John Gerard recommends, in his Herball or General Historie of Plants, for “sowing and setting of Cucumbers, Muske-melons, Citruls (pumpkins), Pompions (also pumpkins), Gourds, and such like. . .as also whatever strange seeds are brought unto us from the Indies, or other hot Regions. . .” Because cucumbers proved difficult to grow outdoors in their country, the British eventually devised types that prosper in greenhouses.

Columbus took some of the seeds with him to the New World, and they eventually became quite popular among Native Americans as well as colonists. The cucumber isn’t highly nutritious but, being 96 percent water, it at least helped keep people well hydrated! The seeds are diuretic and may help prevent constipation as well, though they can sometimes cause indigestion.

The fruit’s largest medicinal use is as a skin soother. Although Gerard advised consumption of a pottage containing oatmeal and cucumber to cure red faces, the pulp is usually applied externally for that purpose.

Since cucumber cools and soothes, as well as reducing swelling, it is often recommended for sunburn, bug stings and bites, acne, and other inflamed skin. John Heinerman, in his Encyclopedia of Fruits, Vegetables, and Herbs, notes that the oily sheen on the peel can also be used to lubricate the lips.

The most common use of the cucumber is, of course, for salads and pickles. Many country gardeners still can their own gherkins, though the process can demand patience. My mother’s sweet pickle recipe requires fourteen days, as well as a crock and grape leaves, but the results are well worth the wait!

Considering the vast array of once exotic fruits available to us Americans in our "promised land" these days, maybe we whould stop harping--like those complaining Israelites--on the things we don't have. After all, as Gerard proved, it often only takes a little ingenuity to get around the limits of one's circumstances!

Plant plate and background from Herbarium Blackwellianum, by Elizabeth Blackwell, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden Library

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