CUCUMBERS ARE ONE of the most commonly grown, and loved, home vegetable crops. But longtime gardeners will know that spring cucumber planting is a dicey proposition in the Pacific Northwest. These plants love the heat, and early planted cucumbers often don’t last more than a few weeks in our mild, wet May weather. However, it’s June, and finally cucumber planting season. I thought this moment might provide a good opportunity to dig a bit into their history and biology. So let’s nerd out for a moment.

Cucumber’s scientific name is Cucumis sativus. Many readers might recognize the species name sativus, or the variation sativa, from certain “herbs” they keep around the house. In fact, this species name is exceedingly common. To name a few other sativas you might already be growing: Allium sativum (garlic), Daucus carota subsp. sativus (carrot), Eruca sativa (arugula), Lactuca sativa (lettuce), Pastinaca sativa (parsnip) and Pisum sativum, (peas).


Sativa, sativus and sativum are Latin botanical adjectives that mean cultivated. Cultivation is the act of caring for or raising plants, i.e. gardening. So basically, these Latin names are just telling us that all of these plants are cultivated varieties descended from wild cousins.

In fact, it’s believed that cucumbers have been cultivated for at least 3,000 years. The cucumber originated in India, where a great many wild and cultivated varieties still exist. Which might prompt you to wonder, “How do people even figure out where plants originate?” Well, when trying to identify the origin of a species, botanists look for what is called a center of origin (or center of diversity). The basic idea is that if you find an area with a lot of cucumbers, and those cucumbers contain a huge range of genetic variability, this is probably the area where they originally evolved.

In addition to earning world-class sleuth credibility, locating the origin of a crop such as cucumber is essential to effective plant breeding. Knowing where a plant comes from allows you to locate wild relatives and related species, and find new genetic diversity. This is especially important today, as we face climate change and the untold changes to crop pests and diseases it might cause.


Cucumbers are part of the Cucurbitaceae family, a widely popular group also known for bringing us watermelons, pumpkins and squash. The fruit itself is classified as a pepo, which is a type of berry. In botany, a berry is a fleshy fruit without a pit, produced from a single flower containing one ovary. So, the category is actually very wide, and in addition to cucumbers, you could say eggplants and bananas are also berries. Which I think is worth noting, only because it might come in handy the next time you play Trivial Pursuit.

Cucumber berries are typically pollinated by bees, in particular honeybees and bumblebees. Most cucumbers can’t self-pollinate, which means that they need the pollen of another plant to form seeds and fruit. So as a general rule, you never want to plant just one cucumber, unless it’s parthenocarpic. This is a big botanical word that means they create fruit without pollination, and those fruits don’t have seeds. In seed catalogs, they often are called “burpless” or “seedless.” So if you do want to plant only a single cucumber, or only have space for just one, make sure you pick out one of these varieties.

When you get to the seed catalogs, the main categories of cultivated cucumbers you’ll find are slicing, pickling and seedless (aka parthenocarpic). Slicers are grown to eat fresh and are generally longer and smoother and have tougher skin.

Although any cucumber can be pickled, commercial pickles are made from cucumbers specially bred for uniformity of length-to-diameter ratio. Picklers usually grow to about 3 to 4 inches long and 1 inch wide, so they fit easily into jars. Compared to slicers, picklers tend to be shorter and thicker, and have a bumpier skin.

Seedless varieties are supposed to be sweeter and have a thinner skin than other types. Thinner skins and a lack of seeds are supposed to reduce bitterness, which is where the name “burpless” came from, since they are supposed to be easier to digest.

I literally could talk about cucumbers all day, but I probably shouldn’t. If you haven’t planted any in the garden yet, or if you planted them early and they didn’t survive, now is a great time to get them in the ground. You’ll be joining in the odyssey of more than 3,000 years of human history with this plant. Reason enough to plant at least two (or one parthenocarpic) specimens in the garden this season.