The balsam apple and the burr cucumber, that wind their branching tendrils over the shrubby growth of neglected fence rows, along the river banks, and hang their spiny fruits where all can see, are the wild representatives we have of a great botanical family, that has furnished us many use ful garden vegetables and fruits. In the Order Cucurbitace, belong melons, pumpkins, squashes, gourds, and cucumbers. Any one would class them together, for all have the distinct form and seed arrangement that the botanists call a pepo.
The English gardener classes pumpkin and squash and vegetable marrow under the group name, gourd. This is not the American way. We group all under the name, cucurbits. The members prove their tropical origin by being sensitive to cold, requiring, in northern gardens, to be started in warm quarters, and set in the ground when the weather is warm.
They have another peculiarity: they get a severe check in growth if the roots are disturbed by transplanting. The practice is to start the seeds in bricks of inverted sod, or in soil packed in flower pots or berry boxes. The sod or box can be set in the ground without disturbing the little plant at all. The earth in the pot, too, can be slipped out and planted.
The cucumber is a native of the East Indies, and has been cultivated in China for three thousand years. One of the staple foods of the peoples of the Far East is boiled cucumbers. Europeans boil them, and also make them into pickles and preserves. The flowers appear in the axils of the leaves, staminate and pistillate separate, but borne on the same plant. The pistillate flowers wither, and the little button under the greenish yellow corolla develops into the elongated fruit. The rough "gherkin" type of cucumber, grown for pickles, is cut before the faded flower drops from the tip. The choicest sweet pickles, by our standards, are scarcely two inches long, though more we let them grow to twice that length before cutting. The vines go on bearing all summer. For salads, cucumbers are grown almost to mature size.
Ripe cucumbers are indigestible, when eaten raw, and their seeds are hard. The flesh is used for sweet pickles and preserves, as the white inner rind of watermelon is, with lemon peel and spices to give it added flavor.
Cucumber vines spread six or eight feet from the hill, so they must be given enough room, or they hinder each other by overrunning their neighbors' territory. They must have the sun and air. Then they bear tremendously, unless the ground gets too dry, and the vines burn under the combined heat of sun and winds.
Unusual forms or cucumbers are grown for curiosity. The snake or serpent species is more a melon than a cucumber. It grows three or four feet long, twisting its slender body in and out among the foliage, and finally turning yellow as it ripens. The oldest varieties were three-angled, indicating the fact that the seeds are arranged in long ridges, as we see when slicing any cu cumber crosswise.
Lemon cucumbers are globular or slightly oval, and about the size and color of a lemon. In flesh and flavor they are very delicate. The California gardener brings them to your door, and they grow to perfection in gardens outside of New York City. So they may be had by us in most any warm tem perate region. They lend a pleasant variety to garden cucumbers, and, having so little green in the skins, they lack the bitter taste that ordinary cucumbers have. We must believe that they are more digestible than the green ones. As a salad vegetable this variety is especially welcomed by all who are devoted to cucumbers, but must eat them sparingly, if not count them forbidden fruit.
"Gherkin" is a name applied popularly to any small, pickling cucumber. The original gherkin is a native of Jamaica, largely grown in the West Indies for pickles, and to be eaten boiled. The vines are very prolific, and the long-stemmed, oval fruits, about two inches long, are streaked green and white until ripe, when they turn yellow. They are covered with fleshy spines, and full of seeds.