Cucumis sativus, the garden cucumber, is a widely cultivated plant in the gourd family (Cucurbitaceae), which includes squash, and in the same genus as the muskmelon and cantaloupe. The cucumber likely originated in India, where it appears to have been cultivated for more than 3,000 years, then spread to China. The Romans likely introduced it throughout Europe. Hundred of cultivars of varying size and color are now grown in warm areas worldwide, commercially and in home gardens.
Cucumber is a frost-sensitive annual—its heat requirement is greater than that for most common vegetables, and in northern climates, it is often grown in greenhouses or hoop houses. It has a hairy climbing, trailing, or creeping stem, and is often grown on frames or trellises. Leaves are hairy and have 3–5 lobes; branched tendrils at leaf axes support climbing. Plants are usually monoecious (male and female flowers on separate plants), but varieties show a range of sexual systems. Female flowers are yellow with 5 petals, and develop into a cylindrical fruit, which may be as large as 60 centimeters (24 in) long and 10 centimeters (3.9 in) in diameter. The color ranges from green to yellow to whitish; in many varieties, fruits are bicolored with longitudinal stripes from stem to apex.
Some varieties produce seedless fruit without pollination, but others are most productive with pollination by various bee species. Hives of honeybees, Apis mellifera are often transported to cucumber fields just before flowering time, but bumblebees (Bombus spp.) and other bee species can also serve as pollinators.
The numerous varieties of cucumbers have been categorized in diverse ways. One general classification is to group them as “slicing,” which are large and smooth- but somewhat tough-skinned and generally eaten when green to avoid a bitter flavor; “pickling,” which are usually smaller, with prickly skins; and "burpless,” which include seedless varieties as well as long, narrow, Asian types.
When mature, the cucumber fruit is 90% water, and is not particularly high in nutrients, but its flavor and texture have made it popular for use as a fresh addition to salads, as well as pickled and prepared in relishes. In Africa, cucumber seeds are used to make an oil for use in salads and cooking. Cucumbers are also used in skin tonics and other beauty aids.
In 2009, total production of cucumbers and gherkins (which can refer to a cucumber variety but also to fruit of the related Cucumis anguria) was 60.6 million tons, harvested from 2 million hectares. China was by far the largest producer, with a harvest of 44.3 million tons; Turkey, Iran, and the Russian Federation followed, producing 1–2 millon tons, and the U.S. ranked 5th, with 888 thousand tons. Within the U.S., Florida, California, Georgia, and Michigan are generally leading producers.
(Encyclopedia Britannica 1993, FAOSTAT 2011, Hedrick 1919, Kirkbride 1993, Whittaker and Davis 1962, Wikipedia 2011)
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