From New World Encyclopedia
Cucumbers grow on vines
Cucumbers grow on vines
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Magnoliopsida
Order: Cucurbitales
Family: Cucurbitaceae
Genus: Cucumis
Species: C. sativus
Binomial name
Cucumis sativus

Cucumber is the common name for a widely cultivated creeping vine, Cucumis sativus, in the gourd family Cucurbitaceae, characterized by large leaves, thin tendrils, and a typically elongated, green-skinned fruit with tapered ends. The term also is applied to the edible, cylindrical fruit of this plant.

In advancing their own individual purpose of continuation as a species, cucumbers also provide value for humans. They are eaten raw or cooked, or they can be pickled, providing a nutritional food source. In turn, humans have spread their cultivation, over the past 3,000 years, from Asia to Europe, Middle East, Africa, and the Americas, and have created numerous varieties. Cucumbers also serve as a source of food for insects and other animals.

Several other plants also utilize "cucumber" as part of their common name, such as the squirting cucumber, Ecballium elaterium. In the United States, wild cucumber refers to Manroot (genus Marah).


Cucumbers belong to the Cucurbitaceae family, which also includes crops like squashes (including pumpkins), luffas, melons, and watermelons. The family is predominately distributed around the tropics, where those with edible fruits were among the earliest cultivated plants in both the Old and New Worlds. Most of the plants in this family are annual vines but there are also woody lianas, thorny shrubs, and trees (Dendrosicyos). Cucumbers belong to the same genus as the muskmelon.

The cucumber, Cucumis sativus, is a creeping vine (climbing or sprawling) that roots in the ground and grows up trellises on other supporting frames, wrapping around ribbing with thin, spiraling tendrils. The plant has large leaves that form a canopy over the fruit.

The fruit is roughly cylindrical, elongated, with tapered ends, and may be as large as 60 centimeters long and 10 centimeters in diameter. Cucumbers grown to be eaten fresh (called slicers) and those intended for pickling (called picklers) are similar.

Having an enclosed seed and developing from a flower, cucumbers are scientifically classified as fruits. Much like tomatoes and squash, however, their sour-bitter flavor contributes to cucumbers being perceived, prepared, and eaten as vegetables. It should be noted that vegetable is a purely culinary term and as such there is no conflict in classifying cucumber as both a fruit and a vegetable.

A cucumber sprout with its first leaves

Flowering and pollination

A few varieties of cucumber are parthenocarpic, the blossoms creating seedless fruit without pollination. Pollination for these varieties degrades the quality. In the United States, these are usually grown in greenhouses, where bees are excluded. In Europe, they are grown outdoors in some regions, and bees are excluded from these areas.

Most cucumber varieties, however, are seeded and require pollination. Thousands of hives of honey bees are annually carried to cucumber fields just before bloom for this purpose. Cucumbers may also be pollinated by bumblebees and several other bee species.

Symptoms of inadequate pollination include fruit abortion and misshapen fruit. Partially pollinated flowers may develop fruit that are green and develop normally near the stem end, but pale yellow and withered at the blossom end.

Traditional varieties produce male blossoms first, then female, in about equivalent numbers. New gynoecious hybrid cultivars produce almost all female blossoms. However, since these varieties do not provide pollen, they must have a pollenizer variety interplanted with them, and the number of beehives per unit area is increased. Insecticide applications for insect pests must be done very carefully to avoid killing off the insect pollinators.

Production and varieties

According to Food and Agriculture Organization, China produced at least 60 percent of the global output of cucumber and gherkin in 2005, followed at a distance by Turkey, Russia, Iran, and the United States.

In the United States, consumption of pickles has been slowing, while consumption of fresh cucumbers is rising. In 1999, the consumption in the United States totaled 3 billion pounds of pickles with 171,000 acres of production across 6,821 farms and an average farm value of $361 million.

Dosakai at a market in Guntur, India.

There are numberous varieties of cucumbers. English cucumbers can grow as long as two feet; they are nearly seedless and are sometimes marketed as “burpless,” as the seeds give some people gas (Herbst 2001). Japanese cucumbers (kyūri) are mild, slender, deep green, and have a bumpy, ridged skin. They can be used for slicing, salads, pickling, etc., and are available year-round. Mediterranean cucumbers are small, smooth-skinned and mild. Like the English cucumber, Mediterranean cucumbers are nearly seedless. Slicers grown commercially for the North American market are generally longer, smoother, more uniform in color, and have a tougher skin. Slicers in other countries are smaller and have a thinner, more delicate skin. Dosakai or "lemon cucumber," is a yellow cucumber available in parts of India. These vegetables are generally round in shape. It is commonly added in Sambar/Soup, Daal and also in making Dosa-Aavakaaya(Indian Pickle) and Chutney.

As a food

Cucumber, with peel, raw
Nutritional value per 100 g
Energy 20 kcal   70 kJ
Carbohydrates     3.63 g
- Sugars  1.67 g
- Dietary fiber  0.5 g  
Fat 0.11 g
Protein 0.65 g
Thiamin (Vit. B1)  0.027 mg   2%
Riboflavin (Vit. B2)  0.033 mg   2%
Niacin (Vit. B3)  0.098 mg   1%
Pantothenic acid (B5)  0.259 mg  5%
Vitamin B6  0.040 mg 3%
Folate (Vit. B9)  7 μg  2%
Vitamin C  2.8 mg 5%
Calcium  16 mg 2%
Iron  0.28 mg 2%
Magnesium  13 mg 4% 
Phosphorus  24 mg 3%
Potassium  147 mg   3%
Zinc  0.20 mg 2%
Percentages are relative to US
recommendations for adults.
Source: USDA Nutrient database

Cucumbers are commonly harvested while still green. They can be eaten raw or cooked, or pickled. The seeds are edible and the thin skin does not require peeling (unless waxed). Cucumbers are usually eaten raw, such as in salads, with the smaller varieties of cucumbers used for pickles (Herbst 2001). As the cucumber matures, the seeds become larger and more bitter (Herbst 2001).

Although less nutritious than most fruit, fresh cucumbers are still a source of vitamin C, vitamin K, and potassium, also providing dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin B6, thiamin, folate, pantothenic acid, magnesium, phosphorus, copper, and manganese. Cucumbers are often used in the decorative food art, garde manger.

Pickling cucumbers

There appears to be variability in the human olfactory response to cucumbers, with the majority of people reporting a mild, almost watery flavor while a small but a small but vocal minority reporting a highly repugnant taste. This likely has a genetic basis analogous to the bitter taste phenylthiocarbamide.


Main article: Pickled cucumber

Cucumbers can be pickled for flavor and longer shelf life. As compared to eating cucumbers, pickling cucumbers tend to be shorter, thicker, less regularly-shaped, and have bumpy skin with tiny white- or black-dotted spines. They are never waxed. Color can vary from creamy yellow to pale or dark green. Pickling cucumbers are sometimes sold fresh as “Kirby” or “Liberty” cucumbers. The pickling process removes or degrades much of the nutrient content, especially that of vitamin C. Pickled cucumbers are soaked in vinegar or brine or a combination, often along with various spices.


The cucumber has been cultivated for at least 3,000 years in Western Asia, and was probably introduced to other parts of Europe by the Romans. There is evidence of cucumber cultivation ninth-century France, fourteenth century England, and in North America by the mid-sixteenth century (McCourt-Bincoletto 2003; Cohen 1997).

Earliest cultivation

The cucumber is believed to be native to India, and evidence indicates that it has been cultivated in Western Asia for three millennia. The cucumber is also listed among the products of ancient Ur and the legend of Gilgamesh describes people eating cucumbers. Some sources also state that it was produced in ancient Thrace (southeast Europe) and it is certainly part of modern cuisine in Bulgaria and Turkey, parts of which make up that ancient state.

From India, the cucumber spread to Greece (where it was called “vilwos”) and Italy (where the Romans were especially fond of the crop), and later into China. The fruit is mentioned in the Bible (Numbers 11:5) as having been freely available in Egypt, even to the enslaved Israelites: We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely/the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic. The Israelites later came to cultivate the cucumber themselves, and Isaiah 1:8 briefly mentions the method of agriculture: The Daughter of Zion is left/like a shelter in a vineyard/like a hut in a field of melons/like a city under siege. The shelter was for the person who kept the birds away and guarded the garden from robbers.

Roman Empire

Pliny the Elder noted that the cucumber was a favorite of the Emperor Tiberius who "was never without it" (Pliny the Elder 77a, in Bostock and Riley 1855). The Roman gardeners used artificial methods (similar to the greenhouse system) of growing to have it available for his table every day of the year. Cucumbers were planted in wheeled carts, which were put in the sun daily, and in the winter they were taken inside to keep them warm at night under special conditions (Pliny the Elder 77a, in Bostock and Riley 1855). The cucumbers were stored under frames or in cucumber houses glazed with either oiled cloth, known as "specularia," or with sheets of mica.

Pliny the Elder describes the Italian fruit as very small, probably like a gherkin, describing it as a wild cucumber considerably smaller than the cultivated one. Pliny also describes the preparation of a medication known as “elaterium,” though some scholars believe that he refers to Cucumis silvestris asininus, a species different from the common cucumber (Pliny the Elder 77b). Pliny also writes about several other varieties of cucumber, including the cultivated cucumber (Pliny the Elder 77c), and remedies from the different types (9 from the cultivated, 5 from the "anguine," and 26 from the "wild"). The Romans are reported to have used cucumbers to treat scorpion bites, bad eyesight, and to scare away mice. Wives wishing for children wore them around their waists. They were also carried by the midwives, and thrown away when the child was born.

In the Middle Ages

Charlemagne had cucumbers grown in his gardens in ninth-century France. They were reportedly introduced into England in the early 1300s, lost, then reintroduced approximately 250 years later. The Spaniards (in the person of Christopher Columbus) brought cucumbers to Haiti in 1494. In 1535, Jacques Cartier, a French explorer, found “very great cucumbers” grown on the site of what is now Montreal (McCourt-Bincoletto 2003; Cohen 1997), although this seems improbable given that they were introduced to the Americas so recently before this, and it is likely that they were some other plant.


In the 1500s, products of Native American agriculture served as barter for European trappers, traders, bison hunters, and explorers (McCourt-Bincoletto 2003; Cohen 1997). From the Spanish, the tribes of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains learned to grow European vegetables, with the best farmers on the Great Plains, the Mandan Indians, obtaining cucumbers and growing them (McCourt-Bincoletto 2003; Cohen 1997).

In 1630, the Reverend Francis Higginson produced a book called, “New England’s Plantation,” in which, describing a garden on Conant’s Island in Boston Harbor known as “The Governor’s Garden,” he states: “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 know not...”

William Wood also published in 1633’s New England Prospect (published in England) observations he made in 1629 in America: “The ground affords 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” (McCourt-Bincoletto 2003; Cohen 1997).

In the later 1600s, a prejudice developed against uncooked vegetables and fruits (McCourt-Bincoletto 2003; Cohen 1997). A number of articles in contemporary health publications stated that uncooked plants brought on summer diseases and should be forbidden to children. The cucumber kept this vile reputation for an inordinate period of time: “fit only for consumption by cows,” which some believe is why it gained the name, “cowcumber.”

A copper etching made by Maddalena Bouchard between 1772 and 1793 shows this plant to have smaller, almost bean-shaped fruits, and small yellow flowers. The small form of the cucumber is figured in Herbals of the sixteenth century, but states, "if hung in a tube while in blossom, the Cucumber will grow to a most surprising length."

Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary on September 22, 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.”

Fredric Hasselquist, in his travels in Asia Minor, Egypt, Cyprus, and Palestine in the 1700s, came across the Egyptian or hairy cucumber, Cucumis chate. It is said by Hasselquist to be the “queen of cucumbers, refreshing, sweet, solid, and wholesome.” He also states that “they still form a great part of the food of the lower-class people in Egypt serving them for meat, drink and physic.” George E. Post, in Hastings’s “A Dictionary of the Bible,” states, “It is longer and more slender than the common cucumber, being often more than a foot long, and sometimes less than an inch thick, and pointed at both ends.”

Image gallery


  • Herbst, S. T. 2001. The New Food Lover's Companion: Comprehensive Definitions of Nearly 6,000 Food, Drink, and Culinary Terms. Barron's Cooking Guide. Hauppauge, NY: Barron's Educational Series. ISBN 0764112589.


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