B's Cucumber Pages

A Brief History of Cucumbers

From Producing Vegetable Crops by Swiader et al; and A History of Horticulture in America to 1860 by U.P. Hedrick.

The cucumber is believed native to India, and evidence indicates that it has been cultivated in western Asia for 3,000 years. From India it spread to Greece and Italy, where the Romans were especially fond of the crop, and later into China. It was probably introduced into other parts of Europe by the Romans, and records of cucumber cultivation appear in France in the 9th century, England in the 14th century, and in North America by the mid-16th century.

The Spaniards brought cucumbers to Haiti in 1494. In 1535 Cartier found "very great cucumbers" grown on the site of what is now Montreal. DeSoto, in 1509, saw cucumbers in Florida "better than in Spain." Captains Amidas and Barlow found cucumbers in Native American gardens in Virginia in 1584. They were also being grown by the Iriquois when the first Europeans visited them.
Editor's note: I received email from Tim Burke, "DeSoto history freak," that corrects this paragraph: DeSoto could not have seen cucumbers in 1509 in Florida as he did not come to florida until 1539. I suspect this is a typo. Furthermore, I suspect that quote is referring to squash or gourds, rather than cucumbers. Although a garrison of his troops did grow a garden which likely did contain cucumbers.

Throughout the 1500s, European trappers, traders, buffalo hunters, and explorers bartered for the products of Native American agriculture. The tribes of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains learned from the Spaniards how to grow European vegetables. The best farmers on the Great Plain were the Mandans in what is now the Dakotas. When the Europeans came to Mandan villages, the tribe were growing some dozen or more varieties of corn, at least six kinds of beans, and an amazing number of pumpkins, squashes, and gourds. To these they quickly added cucumbers and watermelons obtained from the Spaniards.

Colonial New England was famous for its love of gardens of all types, and for its superior gardening techniques learned from the Dutch. John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachussetts Bay Colony, planted a garden on Conant's Island in Boston Harbor that was long known as "The Governor's Garden." There is a glowing description published in London in 1630 by the Reverend Francis Higginson in his book New-England's Plantation:

The countrie aboundeth naturally with store of roots of great varietie and good to eat. Our turnips, parsnips, and carrots are here both bigger and sweeter than is ordinary to be found in England. Here are store of pompions, cowcumbers, and other things of that nature which I knw not...

William Wood came to New England in 1629, and, returning to England in 1633, published in the next year's New Englands Prospect, in which he describes the flora, fauna, and agriculture of the new country:

The ground affoards very good kitchin gardens, for Turneps, Parsnips, Carrots, Radishes, and Pompions, Muskmillons, Isquoter-squashes, coucumbars, Onyons, and whatever grows well in England grows as well there, many things being better and larger.

In the later 1600s, a widespread prejudice developed against fresh fruits and salads, or any product of the orchard or garden that had not been cooked. Newspapres, magazines, and books contained articles by writers on health claiming that these esculents uncooked brought on a whole train of summer diseases and should, in particular, be forbidden to children. Even when soon afterwards, diet reform swept over the colonies and "simple, natural, plain foods" were recommended (as well as eating less meat), the cucumber had difficulty shedding its bad reputation: "Fit only for consumption by cows," by which came the name cowcumber. Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary on 22 September 1663: "This day Sir W. Batten tells me that Mr. Newhouse is dead of eating cowcumbers, of which the other day I heard of another, I think."

Though cucumbers were brought early from the Old World, grown in many a garden, and are mentioned in several eighteenth-century advertisements, nothing is found to be said about varieties until 1806, when M'Mahon, in his Gardener's Calendar, named eight, all from the Old World. Modern cucumbers gradually evolved from these and other European varieties without planned hybridization, or much selection, until 1872, when Tailby's hybrid was exhibited. After that, especially from 1880 to the present, much interest has been shown in breeding this vegetable. Most of the kinds now grown by gardeners and truckers have originated since 1900. Modern cucumbers are little like those listed by M'Mahon in 1806.

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Last Modified: August 28, 1997