“I have been in such a pickle since I saw you last that, I fear me, will never out of my bones. I shall not fear flyblowing.”
— Trinculo in William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” Act V, Scene 1 (1611)
Shakespeare is credited for coining the phrase “in a pickle” with these lines spoken by the jester in “The Tempest” after Alonso, king of Naples, calls him out for his drunkenness. When Trinculo tells the king he’s not afraid of “flyblowing,” he means he won’t rot if he dies because of all the alcohol in his system.
Over the years, “in a pickle” has come to mean “in trouble,” however, the Bard used it the way modern slang uses “pickled” to describe someone as drunk or steeped in alcohol. In fact, pickle comes from the Dutch word pekel, which refers to the brine in which cucumbers are marinated during the pickling process.
In Shakespeare’s day, pickle was a kind of relish made with spices and several stewed vegetables, including cucumbers. At that time, cucumbers (introduced to England during the reign of Henry VIII) were not considered safe to eat uncooked. But stewed cucumbers are said to have been a favorite dish of King Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon.
Around the same time Shakespeare was coining the phrase “in a pickle,” 17th century physicians were the first to use the term “cool as a cucumber” when they advised their patients with fever to lie down on a bed of cucumbers in order to lower their body temperature. Cucumbers are 95 percent water, and since water does not absorb heat as quickly as air, it’s true that cucumbers are cooler than the outside air temperature. Cucumbers were also prescribed for red noses and pimples.
Native to India and cultivated for more than 3,000 years, cucumbers (Cucumis sativa) were known to the ancient Greeks and Romans for their health-giving properties. The story goes that Emperor Tiberius (42 BC-37 AD) insisted that he have cucumbers on his table every day. To meet his demands, Tiberius’s servants invented a portable plant-forcing structure, similar to our modern-day cold frame. I’m sure the servants were not “cool as a cucumber” as they waited to harvest their crops!
Columbus is said to have introduced cucumbers to the New World, and by the early 1800s, Americans were growing several varieties of cucumbers. In 1856, Henry J. Heinz began producing jars of pickles, thus considerably increasing the consumption of cucumbers in America. Today, the average American consumes nine pounds of cucumbers per year, and cucumbers are among the top five crops grown by home gardeners.
This year, I’m growing three kinds of cucumbers: an heirloom lemon cucumber, a burpless slicing variety called “Muncher,” and a pickling cuke called “Little Leaf.” Lately, I’ve been harvesting all three of these from the vines, although the lemon cucumbers have been most abundant so far.
Lemon cucumbers are open-pollinated and bear male and female flowers on the same plant. The male flowers open first to attract pollinators, then female flowers bloom a couple weeks later and are fertilized by bees to produce fruit.
My lemon cukes have been ready to pick when they’re about the size of a nectarine. I clip them off the vine with a little bit of the stem still intact. They have thin, lemon-yellow skin with dark spines that I wash off with water and a vegetable brush. The flesh doesn’t taste citrusy, but has a mild flavor that complements other cucumber varieties in salads.
Lemon cucumbers produce smaller amounts of a natural defense compound called cucurbitacin than some other varieties, so they are less likely to turn bitter-tasting.
“Muncher” cucumbers are a seedless variety that have been bred for less cucurbitacin, so they are non-bitter and burpless with smooth, dark green skin and tender flesh. I’ve been harvesting them when they are 6-8 inches long; however, they can also be picked when they’re 3-4 inches long for pickling.
Cucumbers are one of those plants that produce more fruit the more you harvest. I’ve been checking the vines every day because cucumbers grow so quickly. Be sure to pick cukes when they are firm and before the ends turn yellow, which indicates the fruits are overripe. It’s best to eat or pickle cucumbers within a few days of harvesting. Cucumbers do not continue to ripen after they’ve been picked from the vine, and placing them in the refrigerator speeds up decomposition.
Both ‘Muncher’ and ‘Little Leaf’ cucumbers are parthenocarpic, meaning they do not require male pollen for the female flowers to produce fruit. ‘Little Leaf’ cukes are a bumpy variety that are harvested when they’re 3-5 inches long, and can be eaten fresh from the garden or pickled. A particularly resilient cultivar, ‘Little Leaf’ is touted as one of the most high-yielding, drought-tolerant, and disease-resistant varieties.
I don’t want to jinx myself by saying so, but I’ve had few pest problems with my cucumbers so far this year. Other than some small yellowish spots on the bottom leaves that are the beginning stages of powdery mildew (caused by splashback from watering with the hose), I have been spared from insects and diseases that are common problems for cucumber growers. Frequent insect invaders include squash bugs, cucumber beetles and aphids. Bacterial wilt and mosaic virus are common diseases transmitted by beetles and aphids.
The best way to prevent these pests is by providing the growing conditions cucumbers need to thrive. They typically grow best with full sun, and they need good air circulation and soil with lots of organic matter and good drainage. With so much water content, cucumbers require lots of water, and they are heavy feeders so I apply compost tea as a soil drench every two weeks. I also use compost tea as a foliar spray to help prevent diseases from settling in.
Trellising cucumber vines, rather than allowing them to trail along the ground, also helps to prevent problems with insects and soil-borne diseases.
Fittingly, Shakespeare has a pickling cucumber named in his honor, a self-pollinating, early-maturing hybrid that grows in clusters on the vine. Since so many of Shakespeare’s characters end up “in a pickle” (drunk and/or in trouble), I’m sure the Bard would appreciate the humor.
Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer.