Heirloom Cucumber Varieties
Learn all about heirloom cucumber varieties — from how to pickle gherkins to saving cucumber seeds.
August 1, 2013
By William Woys Weaver
Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by William Woys Weaver is the culmination of some thirty years of first-hand knowledge of growing, tasting and cooking with heirloom vegetables. A staunch supporter of organic gardening techniques, Will Weaver has grown every one of the featured 280 varieties of vegetables, and he walks the novice gardener through the basics of planting, growing and seed saving. Sprinkled throughout the gardening advice are old-fashioned recipes — such as Parsnip Cake, Artichoke Pie and Pepper Wine — that highlight the flavor of these vegetables. The following excerpt on heirloom cucumber varieties was taken from chapter 16, “Cucumbers.”
To locate mail order companies that carry these heirloom cucumber varieties, use our Custom Seed and Plant Finder. Check out our collection of articles on growing and harvesting heirloom vegetables in Gardening With Heirloom Vegetables.
A Brief History of Heirloom Cucumber Varieties
The cucumber is an annual chat originated in India, where its wild ancestor Cucumis hardwickii Royale may still be found in the subtropical valleys of the Himalayas. This ancient cucumber is bitter, as a protection against animals eating it before it is ripe. This natural bitterness still lingers in many cultivated forms, often in the skin or, in the very long-fruited varieties, in that portion of the cucumber closest to the stem.
Cucumbers were first brought under cultivation in the Indus Valley, but from there their culture spread into China and the Near East by the seventh century B.C. China and Japan developed many of the very long-fruited varieties that served as breeding stock for some of the long cucumbers we know today. The ancient Greeks were the first Europeans to cultivate the cucumber, and Roman authors have left a considerable body of information concerning its cultivation and pickling. The Romans made crock pickles with cucumbers very similar to those prepared today by the Germans and Eastern Europeans. Since cucumber seeds have been excavated from Roman sites in London, it has been assumed that the culture of the cucumber spread throughout western Europe during the Roman Empire. The oldest medieval documentation has come to light in archaeological remains found at Krakow, Poland, dating from A.D. 650 to 950. Unquestionably, such old remains would suggest that the Polish cucumber pickle and its Jewish variants have extremely long pedigrees in central Europe, reaching the Slavs even before Christianity.
In spite of its widespread cultivation in Europe, the cucumber does not grow very well in England because of the country’s cool weather and its northern latitude. This has led archaeologists to surmise that the cucumber seeds found in London may have come from imported vegetables, or from the gardens of a well-to-do villa, for Roman aristocrats maintained cold frames and heated buildings that made the cultivation of exotics possible. Yet it was not until the sixteenth century, when English aristocrats began to install cold frames and hothouses, or “stoves,” as they are still called, that the culture of the cucumber became widespread in the British Isles. Since then, the English have raised the cultivation of the greenhouse cucumber to an art form, and most of the heirloom cucumber varieties that they have preserved to this day were originally developed for forcing.
In colonial America the cucumber did very well. Our hot summers appeal to its subtropical temperament, and many of the soils along our eastern coast are of the loose, sandy kind that cucumbers like. Thus, while the cucumber was for a long time a symbol of the gentleman’s kitchen garden in England, in this country it quickly became as common as the watermelon. In fact, the two were sometimes grown together in the same patch. When we look at the lists of cucumbers grown in colonial America, names like Long Green Turkey and Long Roman seem baffling because it is difficult to equate them with many of the heirlooms we know today. The Early Cluster has survived more or less intact, along with the Round Prickly Cucumber, now more commonly known as the West India Burr Gherkin. The burr gherkin belongs to a different species than the true cucumber.
In his American Home Garden (1859, 139), Alexander Watson cited Early Cluster, Short Green, Long Green (white spined), Early Frame, Extra Long, and White Turkey as the best varieties for the kitchen garden. The problem with such heirloom cucumbers is that while the varieties were many, the differences were few, and this holds as true today as it did years ago. Most of the American heirloom varieties readily available are commercial strains from the late nineteenth century. Names like Boston Pickling and Telegraph are still familiar to seed savers, but are now rarely seen on the market. The Long Green and Early Cluster of Watson are still available, the former a slicing cucumber, the latter used for pickling.
My personal preference is for cucumbers that are small and unusual. The green monsters of the seed catalogs are generally tasteless, and once sliced, they could pass for any number of shorter varieties. The long ones make sense in restaurant kitchens, where large numbers of cucumbers are consumed on a daily basis, but in the home they often go to waste in the refrigerator before they are completely used. The small ones suit my purposes best. Furthermore, they can double as pickling cucumbers, and vines that produce small fruit are also generally the most prolific.
My selection of heirloom varieties is motivated by this bias, and since cucumbers are a challenge to grow organically, my choices are also based on trial and error, picking out those varieties that have worked best for me without requiring sprays. When I see large, flawless cucumbers in supermarkets, I can appreciate how much high-test chemistry it took to puff them up to such bugless perfection. My cucumbers are drug free. Perhaps my vines would never win prizes at a flower show, but the fruit is good, and I do not have to dip it in wax to make it look better.
Cucumbers have enough problems to begin with. They are subject to wilts, powdery mildew, and a host of predatory insects, all of which work quickly to destroy a crop. There have been seasons when I refused to plant cucumbers simply to spare the garden of these headaches. Of all the maladies, the squash beetles and striped cucumber beetles seem to do the most damage. Insecticidal soap only annoys them, and shouting does no good. They are arrogant and single-minded in their destruction. They usually feed at night but remain active in the early morning when the dew is still on the plants. Dusting the vines with lime will drive them off without hurting the cucumbers, but it is exceedingly hard on human skin. I have found this advice from the Farmer’s Almanac for 1864 to be quite helpful:
To Preserve Vines from Bugs
The best remedy we have tried is to plant onion seed with the cucumber — and after the plants are up, to sprinkle ashes on every hill just before a fall of rain, which makes a ley and kills the bugs almost instantaneously; the smell of the onion when up will keep the flies off. We have adapted this method for a number of years, not only on our vines, but on vegetables such as beets, parsnips, etc. It promotes their growth and loosens the earth around the roots.
Topsetting onions produce an abundance of bulblet clusters that can be planted whole among the cucumbers. By the time the cucumbers are done, the bulbs will have sprouted into perfect little clumps of “spring” onions that can be harvested for fall salads. The greens can be used like chives. The alkalized dew or rain mentioned in the old bug remedy also neutralizes incipient fungus growths. Overplanting in anticipation of losses and getting the cucumber vines in early are two passive ways to deal with the bug problem. Strong plants always have better natural defenses, so feeding the vines with fish emulsion on a regular basis will help them combat the insects more effectively.
Cucumbers are always healthiest when planted on gentle ridges or hills because the soil around their roots must be well drained. To save space, I train my vines up netting, which also allows me to monitor the insects better. The downside is that I have smaller harvests. The reason for this is that the male and female flowers are on different parts of the plant. The male (staminate) flower is close to the main stem, while the female or fruit-bearing flowers are on the ends of the shoots. On trellised plants, the male and female flowers often end up on opposite parts of the vine, which reduces rates of pollination. When grown on hills, the vines run together, which places the male and female flowers side by side. The bees do the rest. In hothouses the vines must be pollinated by hand unless they are the seedless sort.
Cucumber hills should be 4 to 6 feet apart, with three strong plants to a hill. Ground that has been planted with cowpeas the year before will produce higher yields than ground that is fertilized as the cucumbers are growing. Cucumbers thrive best when temperatures are between 70 and 75 degrees F, but usually burn out by mid-August. Successive plantings over a three-week period in June may avoid this, although cucumbers are somewhat day-length sensitive, which means that productivity decreases when there is more than 11 hours of daylight. Years ago, especially among the Pennsylvania Dutch, it was customary to destroy the old cucumber hills in August and plant them with fall and winter lettuces such as Brown Dutch, Landis Winter, or Speckled.
Saving Cucumber Seeds
For seed-saving purposes, cucumbers must be left on the vines until they ripen, usually when they turn bright yellow or orange. Set aside the best vines for this purpose and do not use them for harvesting. Once cucumber vines begin to produce fruit with seed, fruit production slows down or stops altogether. Let the ripe fruits hang on the vines about 15 days after they turn yellow, even if they should begin to shrivel. I pick the fruit and let it ripen even further on trays in my kitchen. Then, just about the time the fruit begins to rot, I press out the seed into jars of water and let this stand for several days until the seed mass begins to ferment. If there is any doubt, the odor will give fair warning when this has happened. The bad seed will float to the top with the scum. Skim this off and throw it away. Wash the good seed in a sieve and spread to dry on screens. Properly stored, the seed will remain viable for ten years. Do not save seed from cucumber vines that are producing bitter fruit, for this will only increase the likelihood that bitterness will become even more pronounced in the progeny. Furthermore, save seed from only the most perfect specimens, taken from vines most resistant to insects and disease. Different varieties of cucumber will cross with one another, but not with melons, squash, or burr gherkins.
Heirloom Cucumber Varieties
‘Boothby’s Blond’ Cucumber
This variety recently surfaced in Livermore, Maine, where it had been preserved by the Boothby family for several generations. It has become quite popular among seed-saving circles and appears to be a strain of a white cucumber called Salad that was introduced in 1920 by Aggeler and Musser of Los Angeles. It is similar to Salad, but more diminutive, at its best when harvested about 3 inches long. Like Salad, it has black spines and turns a bright orange-yellow when ripe. The plants begin bearing in about 55 days, and the young fruit is excellent raw or in pickles. I use the very small, immature fruit to make white cornichons. They look well when mixed with petit de Paris.
‘Cornichon vert petit de Paris‘
In response to a demand for a cornichon superior to the West India Burr Gherkin, the French developed an exceedingly small pickling cucumber which was introduced in this country during the late 1870s under the name Small Pickling or Gherkin Cucumber. A woodcut of it appeared in Vick’s Illustrated Monthly Magazine (1878, 30). As more and more gherkin varieties began to appear on the market, the small pickling cucumber was differentiated from the others by the name Parisian Pickle. Additional aliases can be found in period seed catalogs, but they all refer to the same thing.
For many years French stock was used to breed American gherkins so that it became difficult to find seed for the pure cornichon vert petit de Paris. This was especially true when I began growing this cucumber, more than twenty years ago, so I was obliged at the time to locate a seed source in Lichtenberg, Alsace. Fortunately, seed is now more generally available both through Seed Savers Exchange and from many small seed houses. The American strains are more climate-worthy, but they lack a certain delicacy of shape and crisp snap of the French original, which is shown in the palm of my hand in color plate 36. I suspect that this is the same tiny pickle, lathered with mustard, that one is most likely to find at the center of German Rollmops.
The petit de Paris is by far the best of all the small heirloom cornichons, black-spined, a vigorous grower, and not too quick to succumb to beetles — possessing a streak of Gallic vituperousness, perhaps. The ripe fruit bloats into a rather large yellow-orange beast resembling the Kirby cucumber in shape. Seed is prolific.
‘Crystal Apple White Spine’ Cucumber
My weakness for white cucumbers is now fully exposed. This one is shaped like a large kiwifruit, which should come as no surprise considering it was developed in Australia. It was introduced in the 1920s by the seed house of Arthur Yates & Company of Sydney, but is ultimately traceable to China. It has been described all too often as a form of the Lemon Cucumber, which it is not, although the two may share a common ancestry. The Lemon Cucumber illustrated in The Vegtables of New York: The Cucurbits (1937; color plate facing page 99) is actually the Crystal Apple Black Spine cucumber, which is an inferior sort to both the lemon and white-spined forms. The drawing here, done from life, shows the true Crystal Apple White Spine.
The fruit is pale white, with faint green markings running vertically from the blossom to stem end. The shape is blocky, rather blunt on both ends, and ideal for slicing. The texture is crisp and keeps well after picking. I have had fruits last in the refrigerator for two weeks without noticeable deterioration. As the fruit ripens, the green markings change to yellow, a good sign that it is no longer at its best for picking.
‘Early Frame’ Cucumber
Stumpy, blunt-ended, this is one of the earliest maturing of all the heirloom cucumbers in this book. This variety has been grown in this country since the eighteenth century and is without a doubt the most tried and true of all our old cucumber varieties. It can be used for slicing or for pickles, and is best for either purpose when about 6 to 7 inches long. The spines are black, the skin surface somewhat warty, with pale green lines running vertically from the blossom to stem end. It is the classic cucumber of the old-time barrel pickles. The mature fruit for seed-saving purposes is a deep russet.
‘Jersey Pickling’ Cucumber
Every gardener should raise a cucumber variety that was developed to take advantage of the local climate. These regional varieties always do better than the more exotic ones, and often come through adverse weather conditions when the others fail. For me, the Jersey Pickling Cucumber fills this niche, and I have had extremely good success with it even though my soil is nothing like that of Burlington County, New Jersey, where this cucumber was developed.
David Landreth offered seeds for it in 1875, but evidently the cucumber was in circulation for a number of years among Jersey farmers before it became better known commercially. It is presumed to be an intermediate variety created by crossing Long Green with Short Green, the result resembling Early Cluster in its physical characteristics. The fruit is best suited to dill pickle recipes and should be harvested when 7 to 8 inches long. The spines are black.
Introduced in the early 1890s as a novelty, this cucumber has many admirable qualities as a slicer for salads. The fruit is round, or should be, and white skinned, with bright yellow streaks. Fruit is harvested when 2 1/2 to 3 inches in diameter. Paring is unnecessary because the skin is thin and lacks all trace of bitterness.
Organic gardeners have recently rediscovered this cucumber because it is more resistant to fungus diseases than many white varieties, and particularly resistant to rust. Furthermore, it remains highly productive until frost and tolerates drought. These features have made it extremely popular in California, but since the vines are especially attractive to squash beetles, I find that I must overplant in order to ensure enough cucumbers during the course of the season.
‘West India Burr Gherkin‘
For many years the presumed origin of this curious old vegetable was thought to be Jamaica, but in fact it originated in Africa and was introduced into Jamaica in connection with the slave trade in the seventeenth century. French botanist Charles Naudin (1859, II) explored its origins: “Est commune à la Nouvelle-Grenade, où les fruits sont d’une usage vulgaire dans l’alimentation.” Naudin located seed in Algeria for a plant known there as concombre arada, which proved to be identical to the burr gherkin, thus exploding the myth. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (1870, 5817) published a handsome color plate of the vine, flowers, and fruit — rather belatedly, to tell the truth, because by then half the cookbooks in England and the United States contained recipes for pickling it. The wood engraving below was taken from the 1868 American Agriculturalist.
The burr gherkin was introduced into the United States by Minton Collins of Richmond, Virginia, in 1793. His seed came from Jamaica. The popularity of burr gherkins as a pickle spread quickly, for Amelia Simmons mentioned them in her American Cookery (1796, 13) and many of our cookbooks before the Civil War contained recipes. The benefits of the gherkin were its weediness, its productivity, and its failure to attract insects; it could be counted on when other cucumbers might fail. The West India Burr Gherkin is not without its pitfalls, for the mature fruit is spiny, bitter, and seedy. Only the small, undeveloped fruit can be used for pickling, best when about 1 1/2 inches long or shorter, at which stage they resemble petits cornichons. Two recent introductions from the Amazon, achocha grande (Cyclanthera pendata) and achocha pequinta (Cyclanthera spinosa), can be treated like burr gherkins in their immature stage. Their culture is the same as that of cucumbers, except that the plants are vigorous climbers and require substantial trellising. Squash bugs and cucumber beetles ignore them. The odd-looking fruit is covered with rubbery green spines.
Burr gherkins seem to do best when allowed to run over the ground like watermelons. They can be planted among corn or pole beans, and can be planted side by side with melons and other cucumbers. Burr gherkins will only cross with other members of the anguria species. For seed-saving purposes, let the fruits ripen on the vine until they turn yellow. Remove the seed and ferment it like other cucumber seed. Fermenting not only separates the good seed from the seed mass but sterilizes the seed.
Eliza Acton published a long, complex recipe for pickling burr gherkins in her Modern Cookery (1848, 352–53). Since it reveals a lot about the technology of pickling and how the gherkins were once used, I have appended it below.
How To Pickle Gherkins, or Cucumbers
Let the gherkins be gathered on a dry day, before the frost has touched them: take off the blossoms, put them into a stone jar, and pour over them sufficient boiling brine to cover them well. The following day take them out, wipe them singly, lay them into a clean stone jar, with a dozen bay leaves over them, and pour upon them the following pickle, when it is boiling fast: as much vinegar as will more than cover the gherkins by an inch or two, with an ounce and a quarter of salt, a quarter ounce of black peppercorns, an ounce and a half of ginger sliced, or slightly bruised, and two small blades of mace to every quart: put a plate over the jar, and leave it for two days, then drain off the vinegar, and heat it afresh: when it boils, throw in the gherkins, and keep them just on the point of simmering for two or three minutes; pour the whole back into the jar, put the plate again upon it, and let it remain until the pickle is quite cold, when a skin or two separate folds of thick brown paper, must be tied closely over it. The gherkins thus pickled are very crisp, and excellent in flavor, and the color is sufficiently good to satisfy the prudent housekeeper.
By stone jar, Acton meant a salt-glazed stoneware crock. Her method of pickling would not satisfy our sense of hygiene today, but do note that she has altogether omitted alum. Here is a useful tip: fresh bay leaves, grape leaves, or cherry leaves may be used in place of alum to create crisp pickles. I use fresh bay leaves because they give the pickle an excellent flavor, and I am therefore not obliged to answer the question: If alum makes pickles crisp, what does it do to our arteries?
I grow this heirloom because it is both consistent and yields a larger fruit than Boothby’s Blond. It is excellent for slicing. The history of the cucumber, however, is obscure. It was preserved in the Pennsylvania Dutch community, and it first interested me for this reason. Seed is readily available from the Landis Valley Museum and through Seed Savers Exchange. It was thought to be a strain of White German, a cucumber grown in the latter part of the nineteenth century and sold principally by the seed house of James J. H. Gregory of Marblehead, Massachusetts. More likely, it is a form of White Wonder, a similar variety introduced by W. Atlee Burpee in 1893, because this variety shows up consistently in seed catalogs patronized by the Pennsylvania Dutch. In fact, the Lapark Seed & Plant Company of Lapark (Lancaster County), Pennsylvania, sold White Wonder well into the late 1920s. The 1926 catalog, which also carried an illustration, recommended picking the fruit when it was 6 to 8 inches long, rather over the hill for my taste. Better to pick it when 4 1/2 to 5 inches. At harvesting stage the fruit is ivory white, but as it matures, it develops warts and turns orange. The spines are black.
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Illustrations Courtesy William Woys Weaver. Photo By Fotolia/andrewsht.