A Curious History of Vegetables: Aphrodisiacal and Healing Properties, Folk Tales, Garden Tips, and Recipes - Wolf D. Storl (2016)
Cucumber (Cucumis sativus)
Family: Cucurbitaceae: gourd family
Other Names or Varieties: Armenian cucumber, cuke, English cucumber, gherkin, Kirby cucumber, lemon cucumber, Persian cucumber
TAKEN EXTERNALLY: smooths skin, heals blemishes and rashes
TAKEN INTERNALLY: cleanses blood, promotes urination (diuretic)
Seeds: expel parasitic worms (vermifuge)
Symbolic Meaning: fertility, reincarnation, pleasant coolness, merriment
Planetary Affiliation: moon
The cucumber is a creeping vine from the melon and pumpkin family. Its preference for ripe old compost, moisture, and a fair amount of shade and warmth tells us it’s a jungle plant. Its original home was the steamy hot jungle of India, where it has been cultivated for over four thousand years. The presumed wild form still grows in subtropical valleys on the southern slopes of the Himalayas. As this variety is very bitter, Dravidian natives probably first used it as medicine before milder cultivated forms were selected over time. To the dismay of gardeners even the cultivated cucumber will sometimes turn out tasting bitter, especially if it is too dry or if the stems get accidentally bent.
Cucumbers of many different kinds (Sanskrit chirbhita, urvaruka, or sukasa; Hindi khira) are cherished in their native India, especially in the premonsoon season when the temperatures can climb to 113 °F (45 °C). Cucumber is just about the only garden plant that can thrive in that kind of heat; even flies and mosquitos can’t take it. Like all cucumbers, the Poona Kheerā variety, which looks like a cross between a cucumber and a gourd, is cooling and refreshing. It is cooked as a vegetable and served with rice and lentils. When eaten raw it is cut lengthwise and sprinkled with some sugar or spicy salt (masala). Indians also love to drink seasoned cucumber water; like the sour pickle juice that eastern Europeans and Turks drank before the advent of Coke, it is very thirst quenching. Another popular refreshment during India’s hot season is raita, yogurt with grated or pickled cucumbers.
Illustration 33. Krishna, the god of loving devotion
The cucumber plant has been treasured in traditional Indian medicine since pre-Vedic times. According to Ayurvedic teachings, the enjoyment of cucumbers affects the bodily fluids or humors (dosa) by lessening dry, fiery heat (pitta) while simultaneously increasing moisture or phlegm (kapha) and the cool air element (vata). The taste of cucumber is described as sweet, earthy, and moist, and its effect on the body as cooling, calming, and refreshing—which in turn can affect our mood, making us “as cool as a cucumber.”
Ayurvedic medicine has so many uses for the cucumber that it would be impossible to list them all. Cucumber seeds—often cooked into syrup with chicory seeds and sugar—are prescribed as a diuretic. An emulsion of seeds and sugar has proven useful for kidney insufficiency, urinary tract inflammation, and inflammation of the bladder. Drinking fresh cucumber juice is good for urinary gravel. Individuals with stomach and intestinal ulcers, constipation, or stomach acidity benefit from cucumber juice and cucumber soup. Cholera patients are given a glass of cucumber juice mixed with coconut juice every two hours to maintain electrolyte balance and to avoid dehydration. Cucumber juice is used internally and externally for rashes and bad skin (Bakhru 1995, 105).
When a culture has such a long tradition with a plant species as India has with the cucumber, it is inevitable that all kinds of symbolism, tradition, and custom will envelop it. As we have seen with other vegetables, the “deva” or archetype of a plant species doesn’t just express its nature in the form of its leaves, flowers, and fruits; its preferred environment; or its chemistry—its nature is also expressed in the images, dreams, imaginations, and rituals it inspires. A plant is, thus, more than its botany; it has also a cultural dimension.
In India the cucumber is associated with Vishnu, the preserver of the universe, especially in his form as Krishna. (On Krishna’s birthday in August, households are decorated in his honor with flowers, lights, and ripe cucumbers.) It is believed that, as a youth, the dark-skinned god was so attractive that he melted women’s hearts. When the moon was full and the glimmering heat of the day gave way to the cooling night, he played softly on his shepherd’s flute. On hearing his music the women left their abodes and their sleeping husbands, hurrying to join the true lover of their souls. Each of them believed that the handsome youth, with whom they shared the tender joys of love, was there for her alone. But this myth doesn’t depict a story of ordinary adultery—it speaks of divine love. It is bhakti, the selfless abandonment and love of human souls who have relinquished worldly life and given themselves to their higher Being.
In all of Southeast Asia, even for the Buddhists, the cucumber is a symbol of fertility. Legend tells of a famous king named Sagara who, though he had two queens, had no heir. A wise man, convinced that Sagara was a virtuous king, blessed the two queens, deeming one of them would bear him one son and the other sixty thousand sons. Soon thereafter, the queens were expecting. As predicted, one bore a healthy son. The other? She bore a cucumber. But the cucumber had sixty thousand seeds, which the father soaked in milk. They turned into sixty thousand strong boys.
Even today Indian women whose wish for children remains unfulfilled believe in the magic of cucumbers. They fast on an especially sacred day and swear to never again eat their favorite vegetable or fruit, hoping the gods will have pity on them; or they pilgrim to sacred wells and cliff crevices where it is believed that children’s souls can be found. There they pray, take off their old clothes in exchange for new ones, and offer a cucumber. One of these sacred wells is Lolark Kund in the city of Varanasi. According to legend, once upon a time the sun stood still directly above the well, creating a break in the ever-rotating wheel of life. This break in the circle is a loophole through which the spirits of children can enter the material world and incarnate. Each August, on “the day the sun stood still,”1 one can witness hundreds of barbers cutting the hair of thousands of small children. Parents offer hair offerings to express their thankfulness to the gods for blessing them with children.
The cucumber started its voyage to nearly all the countries of the world quite early in agricultural history. In the seventh century BC it crossed Mesopotamia to reach Greece, where it became known as siküos. The Greeks learned to appreciate its cooling nature and cultivated cucumbers on a large scale; former “opium poppy city” Mekone near Corinth became “cucumber city” Sikyon (or Sicyon). The Romans also appreciated the cooling vegetable. Emperor Tiberius (42 BC–37 AD), who had greenhouses built for growing cucumbers, ate them year-round. The Romans called the plant “cucumis,” from which comes cucumber in English and concombre in French. But, interestingly, the cucumber didn’t enchant everyone; though the vegetable was brought north by the Roman legionaries, it failed to enthuse the Celts and Germanics. Although Charlemagne (742–814) ordered that cucumeres be planted on his landholdings, scholars don’t know if such meant cucumbers or melons. By the Middle Ages in western Europe the plant seemingly was lost in oblivion; in any case, the twelfth-century abbess and polymath Hildegard von Bingen did not seem to know it.
The cucumber debuted in North America in the Jamestown colony in 1607, having arrived among the seeds brought by English settlers.
The watery green fruit found its way to the Far East in the fifth century AD. The Chinese called it the hugua (“melon of the Barbarians”). Though fully ripe, yellow cucumbers are occasionally mixed with other vegetables in the wok, but the Chinese never really showed much enthusiasm for them. They regarding them as “poisonous.” This isn’t to say that one could die from poisoning oneself with them, but they are seen as having too much yin (moist, dark, female energy)—so much so that they can disrupt an individual’s yin-yang balance, thus encouraging disease. Despite this belief, however, in Chinese herbal lore the plant is used as a cooling, diuretic, laxative, and detoxifying medicine. Leaves and roots are used for dysentery and diarrhea, and the shoots for dysentery and urinary disease. Even today the shoots are cooked and the decoction of cooked shoots is given for high blood pressure. The fresh juice of cucumber leaves is supposed to help reduce sudden flatulence with infants. Freshly mashed roots are used for swelling. Unfortunately, here in the West, we have no experience with these treatments.
Illustration 34. Cucumber plant (Joachim Camerarius, Neuw Kreütterbuch, 1586)
The Indian enthusiasm for the cucumber was shared by the Slavs: Poles, Czechs, Wends and Sorbs in eastern Germany, and other Slavic folk groups love cucumbers. The German word for cucumber, “Gurke,” as well as the English word “gherkin,” both come from the old Polish term “ogurek.”2 According to archeological records, the first verifiable cucumber seeds were found in eastern Europe and eastern Germany, including seeds in Cracow dating between 650 and 950 AD, in Breslau from the eleventh century, and in the Czech Republic from the fourteenth century. In western Europe they did not appear until the sixteenth century, and then only in the commerce metropolis of Amsterdam.
Gustav Hegi (1876–1932), master of central European plant lore, described the Slavs as passionate admirers of cucumbers, noting how the Wends, who settled southeast of Berlin on the river Spree some two thousand years ago, grew fantastic cucumbers—even without hotbeds. He wrote:
Even today the Spree forest is the cucumber basket for Berlin. Indeed, cucumbers pickled according to Slavic custom in salt with or without vinegar, or in vinegar with horseradish, dill, mustard, and pepper, are inexpensive foods for the hot summer months. The fairly slow months of July and August—due to the summer heat—are even called in common parlance “pickle time.” Pickles taste sour due to lactic acid fermentation; the lactic acid bacteria that develop in the salty water create lactic acid from the sugar in the cucumbers, even without any vinegar in the brine (Hegi 1918, 331).
Cucumbers fermented with lactic acid are very good for the health, aiding, for example, the beneficial intestinal bacteria in repopulating after a treatment of antibiotics.
Sociologists tell us that emigrants’ own traditional food is the most important part of their identity. Even after leaving behind customary clothing, customs, even language, newcomers cling to the culinary inheritance of their ancestors. For example, consider Italian pasta and pizza; Irish corned beef with cabbage; German beer, sausage, and hamburgers; the kosher food of the Jewish. The third-generation-Polish neighbors I knew as a child in Ohio were no different. For them, pickles (ogórki kiszone) and kielbasa sausage had an almost sacred status; no festivity was complete without them, as they stood for communion with the “spirit of the tribe.” The mother of a friend of mine, Mrs. Kostecki, made especially good pickles, which “demanded” ritual care. In providing that care, first the cucumber bed was generously fertilized with composted cow dung. The seeds were sown according to the moon and astrological signs: sowing when the moon was in a water sign, Pisces or Scorpio, made the resulting cucumbers juicy and smooth. (There were additional secret rules, I’m sure, but I missed a lot of them because Mrs. Kostecki spoke to her plants in Polish.) The harvest and pickling process was also performed according to astrological signs. Mrs. Kosteki let some get very ripe and yellow; these were then peeled and made into what she called “mustard pickles.” The others were picked before they were ripe. Though Anglo Americans pickled their cucumbers in a hot brine of vinegar, sugar, and spices, Mrs. Kosteki soaked hers in salt brine with or without herbs, letting lactic acid fermentation do its work. This was never to be done in the sign of Pisces; since Pisces is connected to feet, they would go bad and smell like unwashed feet. For a similar reason she would not make pickles when the moon was in Scorpio, as it’s connected to the genital area.
In all of eastern Germany and the bordering areas, the folklore involving “sympathetic magic” is similar. Everywhere cucumbers are sown in the garden when the moon is in either the water signs of Scorpio and Pisces; the water sign of Cancer is not ideal because such creates too many tendrils but few or crooked fruits. If the seeds are sown when the moon is in Gemini, there will be a big harvest but of a lower quality. And if one sows or plants in the fire and air signs, or in the earth sign of “virgin” Virgo, one will get a lot of blossoms but few cucumbers.
Country people used to choose especially sacred days for sowing cucumbers, such as Walpurgis Night (April 30), St. Sophia’s Day (“Cold Sophie,” May 15), or Corpus Christi (sixty days after Easter Sunday). In the German state of Brandenburg the gardeners hoped the cucumbers would grow as fast as the witches ride their brooms up the “Bocksberg” on Walpurgis Night. In Mecklenburg it was considered best to sow when the church bells chimed on Christ’s Ascension Day (Holy Thursday). Country folk reckoned that male patron saints’ days were better than those of the female saints for tending this obviously phallic vegetable. As such, cucumbers were traditionally cared for by the menfolk. In eastern Europe it is often the grandfather of the household who takes care of the cucumber bed; it is thought the plants thrive best if fertilized and watered with his urine. And were a menstruating woman to go into a cucumber garden, or even look at the garden, the plants might shrivel. (A menstruating woman should not touch a man’s member for the same reason.)
Illustration 35. French cartoon, “The Masked Cucumber” (“Le Concombre Masqué”) (illustration by Nikita Mandryka)
There is something comical about cucumbers. In German there is an expression “to cucumber one’s way through the countryside,” which means driving around aimlessly, having nothing else to do. In Saxony a comical person is called “a cute cucumber.” There was a popular comic in France in the 1980s, The Masked Cucumber (Le Concombre Masqué); its main character was a clever cucumber that, as “the enlightened master of the universe,” had subsumed all the power of his garden fellows. Like sect leader Bhagwan Rajneesh, he was depicted wearing a flowing robe and a knitted cap. In Berlin those who, like the “Masked Cucumber,” allow themselves indecencies and impertinence may hear: “They have the nerve of a cucumber! (Wat nimmt sich der Mensch für ’ne Jurke raus!)” And, finally, rumor has it that Mick Jagger owes some of his erotic charisma to cucumbers: he is said to have stuffed a good-sized cucumber in his tight jeans before performances.
In Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels the Lilliputians tried to extract sunrays from cucumbers and save them in jars, as they wanted to warm the air on unfriendly and rainy days with the stored light. What the Lilliputians could not achieve in the realm of fantasy a German scientist did achieve in our own history. In 1975, biophysicist Fritz-Albert Popp examined germinating cucumber seeds with a photomultiplier—an apparatus that picks up and intensifies light emissions (bioluminescence) produced from living organisms. In so doing he proved that living cells radiate light (photons). As such, the cucumber is actually the godfather of modern biophotonic research.
Nowadays, the popular cucumber is readily available at all times of the year, as they are considered essential to many diets. In stimulating intestinal and kidney activity they give hope to those working to maintain a healthy weight. Contemporary research also shows that cucumbers are ideal for diabetics because they have a hormone that optimizes pancreatic function and supports insulin production. Both cucumber juice and grated cucumbers are good for smoothing the skin. Many film stars and models prefer cucumbers to beauty creams for their valuable “outer coating.” As such, these modern women maintain practices derived from the wisdom of their ancient grandmothers, as old herbal books note the cucumber combats off all kinds of spots and flaws.
CULTIVATION: The tropical cucumber is very frost-sensitive in spring and fall, so seeds shouldn’t be sown until nighttime temperatures remain above 50 °F (10 °C). To speed the germination process one can soak the seeds in milk the night before sowing, they will germinate faster. To strengthen the plants themselves cucumbers like fermented stinging nettle tea and rock flour. Should mildew threaten the plants, one can spray them with a tea made of horsetail.
SOIL: Cucumbers succeed in a well-drained sandy loam that is well supplied with compost, lime, and moisture.
OF SPECIAL NOTE: Bees play an essential role in cucumber production by carrying the pollen from the male flower to the female. For perfect fruits to form, the female flower must be pollinated on the first day it is ready; otherwise, the cucumber will be misshapen—or won’t form at all. In addition, it is vital that cucumbers are harvested every day; otherwise they may stop producing. (LB)
Cucumber Soup with Sour Cream and Sour Dock • 4 SERVINGS
2 medium cucumbers, cubed • 2 tablespoons sunflower oil • ¾ quart (175 milliliters) vegetable broth • herbal salt • 20 small sour dock leaves, whole • 4 tablespoons sour cream
In a medium pan, sauté the cubed cucumbers in the sunflower oil. Add the broth and simmer for 10 minutes. Blend and let cool. Add herbal salt to taste. Stir in the sour dock leaves. Transfer soup to bowls; garnish each with a spoonful of sour cream.