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Chill, and stay as cool as a cucumber this summer

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Cucumber 'Spa Water'Cucumber 'Spa Water'While cucumbers are widely available all year round, summer's our favourite time to use them. These low-calorie veggies are actually fruits with many nutritional benefits; and because they are 95 percent water, cucumbers are a great way to stay hydrated, so include them in your diet to stay healthy and as ‘cool as a cucumber’ this summer! There is a world of recipes out there for you to try, from a simple "Spa Water" or a refreshing "Agua Fresca," meaning “fresh water” or “cool water” in Spanish, to a cold "Green Gazpacho Soup," or a cool “Tzatziki” dip.

Be inspired by cucumbers, after all they are one of our most ancient vegetables and have been grown for centuries. Cucumber belongs to the Cucurbitaceae family, and other important members of this family include watermelon, pumpkin and squash. Cucumbers are indigenous to Southeast Asia, with the earliest records coming from the Himalayan foothills of India over 4000 years ago, and where closely related wild species have been found. Early Indian civilization managed to domesticate cucumber and started infusing it into their rich cuisine, and with time, and as their cultivation techniques evolved, they started trading cucumbers with Middle Eastern civilizations and Europe.

Cucumber even makes an appearance in the legends of ancient Ur and the sagas of Gilgamesh; and  the Bible states that cucumbers were cultivated and eaten in ancient Egypt, with Numbers 11:5 reading: “We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick.” The Greeks and Romans also cultivated cucumbers, 2000 years ago, and even used sliced cucumber over wounds and grazes, on both their soldiers and their horses; with ancient texts confirming that sliced cucumber was indeed used to treat skin ailments and burns. So, from ancient India the humble cucumber spread throughout ancient Rome, Greece, Europe, Egypt and Africa, The New World, and China, eventually becoming the fourth most widely cultivated vegetable in the world.

The Roman Emperor Tiberius (14AD-37AD) was said to have demanded that they be on his table every day, and in order to meet his demands, and to supply him with cucumbers throughout the year, special summer gardens were tended just for his vegetables, and in winter cucumbers were grown on moveable bed-frames which were moved from place to place in order to catch maximum sunlight. These frames were covered with translucent panes of silicates - not unlike our modern cold frames, and illuminated with ‘mirror-stones,’ typically made of polished stone such as black volcanic glass obsidian. Silicate minerals are the largest and most important class of rock-forming minerals and make up approximately 90 percent of the Earth's crust; and examples of this kind of mirror were found in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) and have been dated to around 6000 BC.

The ease of production, and a wide variety of types, ensured that cucumbers remained popular in Italy for several centuries. However, after the fall of Rome, cucumbers receded from popularity for a long time, only resurfacing again in the gardens of the court of Charlemagne, also known as Karl and Charles the Great - a medieval emperor who ruled much of Western Europe from (c.768-814.) It was only during the reign of King Henry VIII (1509-1547) that the cucumber made its way to England; and although at first the locals were not that impressed, it is said that his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, demanded to have them for her Spanish salads.

The Age of Discovery proved to be very important to the spread of cucumber around the world, and Columbus is credited for taking cucumber to The New World, along with many other vegetables. He introduced it to Haiti in 1494, where they were grown by Spanish settlers and distributed further across The New World. In about 1539, Hernando de Soto (c.1495-1542) a Spanish explorer and conquistador who was involved in expeditions in Nicaragua and the Yucatan Peninsula, but is best known for leading the first Spanish and European expedition deep into the territory of the modern-day United States, both searching for gold, and for a passage to China or the Pacific coast, judged the cucumbers he found growing in Florida to be better than those of his native land of Spain.

During 16th century, European trappers in North America introduced cucumbers to the native Indians in the region of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. They quickly saw the potential and nutritious value of cucumbers and watermelons, and immediately started cultivating them. By 1806 eight varieties of cucumbers were being grown in America’s colonial gardens, but sadly, at around the same time, the expansion of cucumbers across North America suddenly stopped, when several medicinal journals reported that cucumbers and all similar vegetables that were not cooked represented a serious health risk! Needless to say, due to these misconceptions, the use of cucumber plummeted across the continent, only to be reversed in 19th century.

Happily, today we know that cucumber is not only refreshingly delicious but also very beneficial to our health; and more and more people worldwide are consuming cucumbers. In 2012 the world's cucumber production surpassed 65.000 million kilos for the first time, reaching 65,134.08 million kilos, with China listed as the world's largest cucumber producer, with 48,000 million kilos; (73 % of the total global production.) In second place is Turkey with 1,742 million kilos (2.68 % of the world's total production,) followed by Iran, with a production of 1,600 million kilos (2.46 % of the total.)

In the kitchen:

Cucumbers are so versatile in the kitchen, and there is a world of recipes out there for you to try. For a delicious and healthy drink, juice a cucumber and add some fresh celery or dill for more flavour; or make a thirst-quenching Agua Fresca, meaning “fresh water” or “cool water” in Spanish. Agua Fresca is a Mexican non-alcoholic drink made with sugared water and virtually any fruit, and often including vegetables such as cucumber, celery, or cooked beets - simply mix different fruits and veggies together to make up your favourite flavour combo. Cut the ingredients into chunks and blitz them together in a blender, sieve to strain the pulp, and serve. Some people prefer spa water because it is so easy to make. Chop the fruit or vegetables into chunks, perhaps adding some herbs like mint, and infuse them in water in the refrigerator for a few hours, or overnight, before drinking. There are many healthy "Cucumber Spa Water" recipes online, which will not only refresh you, but also flush and detox your body. Whip up a few batches for your next braai, picnic or pool party - your guests will all be coming back for more. Even children enjoy this healthy alternative to sugar-laden commercial cold drinks.

Everyone knows how delicious cucumbers are in salads, creamy dips, and a cucumber salad sandwich, but there are many simple yet exciting ways to use them, like in a cold Gazpacho soup. Gazpacho has ancient roots, and there are a number of theories on its origins; including as a soup made with stale bread, olive oil, vinegar, water, and garlic. It arrived in Spain and Portugal with the Romans, and became a part of Andalusian cuisine, particularly Córdoba, Seville and Granada. During the 19th century, Red Gazpacho evolved when tomatoes were added to the ingredients; and today there are many modern variations of gazpacho, often in different colours, and omitting the tomatoes and bread in favour of cucumbers, avocados, parsley, watermelon, grapes, meat stock, seafood, and other ingredients, so search online for a cucumber gazpacho soup recipe which suits your families taste.

Try making your own Tzatziki, it’s such a simple dip, yet the oldest and arguably the most famous Greek food in the world. It’s even older than Greek Mousaka, and certainly has had the whole world talking about it, and food critics voicing their opinions about the various recipes out there, and debating about the origins of the tzatziki recipe. The Greeks remain adamant that tzatziki was, is, and always will be Greek; pointing out that the origin of the Turkish name was a result of the rule of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled over Greece from the 16th century till World War 1. During this period, it was mandatory to give Turkish names to all Greek food, and the reason why many Greek dishes still have Turkish names. The word tzatziki derives from the Persian “zhazh,” meaning herb mixture; and recipes similar to Tzatziki are very popular in Middle Eastern countries.

No matter which region your favourite tzatziki comes from, variations of this dip remain easy to make, and there are endless recipes out there to discover, so find your special blend, or concoct your very own. The cucumber can be peeled or not, and grated or reduced into little cubes, and even though the most popular herb to make Tzatziki sauce with is fresh dill, many variations provide for different herbs like oregano, mint, or thyme, and some recipes suggest using lemon juice instead of vinegar. In Greece tzatziki sauce requires whole Greek yogurt, flavoured with fresh dill and vinegar or lemon juice, and lots of garlic, but other fresh herbs are traditional and tasty as well. In Turkey, “Cacik” is a variation of tzatziki with Sumac spice, fresh mint, and water, and is served as soup or a side dish, and in some Balkans countries, this sauce is named “Tarator,” and enriched with walnuts and sometimes minced onions. Tarator is also popular in Albania and often paired with grilled squid.

Health benefits:

Cucumbers are high in water and low in calories, fat, cholesterol, and sodium, and today we know that they containing important electrolytes which help us stay cool and hydrated on a hot summer’s day. However, there are many good reasons to eat cucumbers all year round - they contain vitamin K, copper, potassium, vitamin C, and manganese. And because they contain multiple B vitamins, including vitamin B1, vitamin B5, and vitamin B7 (biotin,) cucumbers are known to help ease feelings of anxiety, and to buffer some of the damaging effects of stress.
 
Cucumbers are rich in two of the most basic elements needed for healthy digestion, namely, water and fibre. The cucumber skins contain insoluble fibre, which adds bulk to your stool, helping it to move through your digestive tract more quickly, for healthy elimination. The soft flesh of cucumbers contains soluble fibre which dissolves into a gel-like texture in your gut, helping to slow down your digestion, and therefore helping you to feel full for longer, and helping with weight control. Simply adding unpeeled cucumbers to your juice or salad will help you to achieve the ideal of amount of fibre your body needs - 50 grams per 1,000 calories consumed.

Eating more fibre can help prevent a build-up of cholesterol and the cardiovascular problems that can result from this. Cucumbers also contain potassium, and studies conducted on potassium intake showed that a higher intake is associated with lower rates of stroke, and may also reduce the risk of total cardiovascular disease.

Cucumbers can help lower the inflammatory response in the body, and the polyphenols called “lignans” they contain can potentially reduce the risk of certain cancers and cardiovascular diseases. They also contain plant nutrients called “cucurbitacins,” which have anti-cancer properties, and scientists have already determined that several different signalling pathways required for cancer cell development and survival can be blocked by activity of cucurbitacins.

Another anti-inflammatory substance called “fisetin” is present in cucumbers, as well as strawberries and grapes, and it has recently been suggested that fisetin plays an important role in brain health, having the ability to reduce the impact of age-related neurological diseases on brain function, and it would also help maintain cognitive function in people with Alzheimer's disease.

Researchers have concluded that cucumbers may help control and prevent diabetes, because they contain Cucurbita ficifolia, which may help reduce spikes in blood sugar; and the peel has been found to help with symptoms of diabetes in mice. Cucumbers also have a low score on the glycaemic index (GI) which means they provide important nutrients without adding carbohydrates that can increase blood glucose.

Another great reason for including cucumbers in your daily diet is that they contain silica - the wonder mineral in cucumber which makes your hair and nails stronger and shinier, and there is a reason why cucumbers are used in skin care, as they have been shown to be effective as a potential anti-wrinkle agent in cosmetic products, protecting our skin form the effects of aging.

Cultivation/Propagation:

To reap all the health benefits of cucumbers it is best to grow your own cucumbers organically, or buy using environmentally friendly pesticides only. Each year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) produces a list of fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticide residue, known as “The Dirty Dozen.” Cucumbers are high on the pesticide residue list, so the EWG suggest buying organic cucumber to reduce the risk of pesticide exposure.

Cucumbers are fast growing, warm season crops, and can even be grown in large containers. In warmer regions of the country seed can be sown from spring to mid-summer, and in cold regions from late spring to early summer. In humid subtropical regions they are planted out during the coolest months. In home gardens they are best trained up a trellis of some kind, at least 2m high. Tie the stems up as they grow and encourage them to bush by pinching out the growing tips when the plants have 6 true leaves. Once they reach the top of the trellis, pinch out the growing tips again, and continually pinch back very long side shoots to encourage more fruiting.

Cucumbers love good air circulation around their leaves, and require well-prepared beds with soil that drains well and is enriched with compost, or well-rotted manure, and a sprinkling of an organic fertiliser like 2:3:2. A pH of 5.5 to 6.5 is perfect. Only sow seed directly into the soil when soil temperatures are 20°C or higher, or they may not germinate. Sow directly into the soil, in clumps of about 3 seeds; planting them +-2cm deep, and allowing about 40cm spacing between the clumps. When the seedlings are a couple of centimetres tall you will need to thin out the weakest seedlings, leaving only 1 or 2 strong plants. If you have sown into small pots or trays, transplant into larger pots; or into the garden when the seedlings are about 10cm tall.

When your cucumbers start to flower feed them with an organic fertiliser like 3:1:5, keeping it well away from the stems of your plants, and water it in well. Feed again after 3 to 4 weeks, and mulch the plants with compost, but don’t let it touch the stems. Water your cucumber plants regularly, as a lack of moisture can lead to poor flower production and wilting of the leaves.

As with all vegetables, it is important to keep the beds clean, and free of weeds or rotting fruits, which harbour diseases and unwanted pests. Remove weeds gently by hand, as not to damage the roots of your plants, and it may be prudent to implement a preventative spraying regime against pests like cucumber beetles, and diseases like powdery and downy mildew, which need to be prevented, rather than cured – read more under Problems, Pests & Diseases below.

Depending on the variety grown, cucumbers will be ready to harvest in about 8 to 10 weeks. Harvest with a sharp knife as soon as they are big enough, and don't leave any large fruits hanging on your plants, as this will prevent the production of more flowers.

Companion planting:

Dill and caraway are said to improve the taste of cucumber crops; basil is reputed to protect them from downy mildew, and onions, garlic, or chives will also help prevent fungal diseases. Cucumbers will also grow well with beans, cabbage, lettuce, celeriac, celery, and beetroot. They do not, however, enjoy growing near corn, tomatoes, radish or horse-radish.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

The female flowers form fruit after being pollinated by male pollen, so if fruit production is low it may be due to a lack of pollination by bees. Bees are not very active in cool, overcast weather, and fruit setting should improve when the weather warms up.
 
Cucumbers are susceptible to different diseases: mostly fungal and viral infections. A few of the most common cucumber diseases include; powdery and downy mildew, bacterial wilt, and cucumber mosaic virus.

Powdery mildew Picture courtesy Sarah RubensPowdery mildew Picture courtesy Sarah RubensPowdery mildew Picture courtesy Sarah RubensPowdery Mildew is one of the most common diseases in cucumbers, and if the infection is severe, will cause poor growth of the fruits. It starts as a white, powdery growth on the upper surface of the leaves, causing the leaves to begin to wither and fall off prematurely. Downy mildew appears as yellow or brown spots on the upper leaf surface, with a grey/purple fungal growth on the lower surface.

Powdery and Downy Mildew will need to be prevented, rather than cured, by regular spraying with an organic fungicide like Biogrow’s Copper Soap. It is important to spray regularly on the leaves, flowers or fruits, before the pathogen is able to cause an infection.  This product will control fungal diseases such as: powdery mildew and downy mildew on vegetables and ornamentals, rust on ornamentals, late blight on potatoes and tomatoes, and Peronospora and downy mildew on grapes. To help prevent outbreaks, select cucumber cultivars which are resistant to mildew, plant in well-drained soils, ensure that there is good air circulation around your plants, avoid overhead irrigation, and keep your beds free of weeds at all times.

Viral Diseases may be caused by cucumber mosaic virus, squash mosaic virus, watermelon mosaic virus, and zucchini yellow mosaic virus. Symptoms include a mosaic pattern on leaves that, in severe cases, results in a shoestring effect. Fruits can be malformed and bumpy, and seeds can also be malformed. The viruses are transported mainly by infected seed, or insects such as aphids or cucumber beetles. To control this, remove the infected plants and destroy; and buy disease-free seeds from certified seed companies.

Cucumber Bacterial Wilt is characterized initially by wilting and drying of individual leaves, especially those exhibiting Cucumber Beetle injury. Later, wilting spreads to entire branches, causing the entire vine to wither, collapse, and die. In partially resistant plants, symptoms appear as dwarfing, excessive blooms, and branching.

Spotted cucumber beetle. Picture courtesy Judy Gallager - see her flickr pageSpotted cucumber beetle. Picture courtesy Judy Gallager - see her flickr pageSpotted cucumber beetle. Picture courtesy Judy Gallager - see her flickr pageLeaf Beetles spread Bacterial Wilt Disease, and at least three common cucurbit leaf beetles attack pumpkins in South Africa. They are all black and orange and damage flowers and leaves. Cucurbit beetles must be controlled when they are first noticed in the spring, because the bacteria overwinter in the digestive system of the beetles, and in spring, bacterial wilt is spread from plant to plant as the beetles feed on the plants. The bacteria are released through the insect’s excrement and move into host plants through the wounds, and as the insects ingest more bacteria as they feed on infected plants, the cycle is repeated. There are no cures for the disease, and infected plants must be removed and destroyed when symptoms of wilting are first noticed.

To try to control this disease, purchase varieties of cucumber which are more resistant to bacterial wilt, and in spring, the young plants can be protected from these beetles by covering them with netting. Since these beetles overwinter in the soil, to disrupt their cycle crop rotation is essential, and after growing cucumbers in a certain area of the vegetable garden, they should not be planted there again for 3 years. The larvae also feed on corn, so avoid planting cucumbers next to corn. Organic insect sprays like Ludwigs Insect Spray, Biogrow Pyrol, and Biogrow Bioneem, can help control infestations.

Fusarium Wilt disease favours warm soil temperatures, and causes the plants to wilt and die. When the lower stem is cut open, stem tissues are light brown in colour. Plant disease-free seed; adjust soil pH to 6.5, and control nematodes.

Phytophthora crown/root rot causes the lower stem and roots to become brown and rot, causing plants to wilt and die. To help prevent this: avoid over-irrigating plants; use well-drained soil; use clean water (borehole or municipal water); and practice crop rotation

Pumpkin Fly is a pest every cucurbit grower will know. It is similar to a fruit fly but, as its name suggests, it parasitizes members of the pumpkin family, by stinging the small, young fruits, and laying its eggs in a cluster under the peel. The initial ‘sting’ in the fruit leaves a puncture mark surrounded by a sunken area. When these hatch, the young maggots start eating the flesh, and destroy the fruit. When the maggots mature, they leave the fruit and fall to the ground. Here, they bring head and posterior together, then release, ‘springing’ to a new site, where they pupate in the soil. The life cycle can last as little as three weeks under favourable conditions. It’s possible to stop the pumpkin fly problem in its tracks by killing off the early hatchlings that made it through winter. And if you bait the crop using Efekto – Eco Fruit Fly Bait, just before flowering, as well as during early flowering, you can slow down the pest dramatically. If damage is already visible, remove and destroy all stung fruit, install a bait station, and start a regular spraying programme with Biogrow Bioneem every seven days when the plant starts flowering. If a serious problem develops, combine Biogrow Pyrol and Bioneem at 5 ml each per litre of water, and spray regularly.

Aphids Picture courtesy Victoria BensleyAphids Picture courtesy Victoria BensleyAphids Picture courtesy Victoria BensleyAphids commonly attack cucumbers, and these soft-bodied insects often appear in clusters. They are very small and may be green, red, brown, or black. They suck plant juices and transmit viral diseases, so if infestations are severe, they should be controlled with an organic insecticide like Neudosan from Biogrow. This product may be used in organically certified crops, and is effective against soft-bodied insects and mites, like aphids, leafhoppers, mealy bugs, psyllids, scales and whitefly. It is a fast-acting, contact insecticide, which is safe, with no harmful residues, and may be used on day of harvest.

Red Spider Mites which cause the leaves to become mottled, with yellow patches. Spraying regularly with Biogrow Neudosan or Biogrow Vegol will control mites, and increasing the humidity around the plants by spraying the undersides of the leaves in the morning will also help to control them.

Warning:

Being relatively high in vitamin K, a high consumption of cucumber could have an effect on blood clotting. People who use warfarin, or Coumadin, or similar blood-thinning drugs should not increase their intake of cucumber suddenly without consulting a doctor.

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