Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Why Cucumbers Get Bitter

 Cucumbers.. they just scream summer time. Cool, sweet, refreshing.. perfect for that hot sticky day. You think of this as you select the strains and start the seeds.. transplanting them carefully.. names like Marketmore 76, Straight Eight, Champion, Boothby's Blonde, Sugar Crunch..  Waiting for the first flowers to appear, all bright yellow and full of promise.

 After the tease of the first flowers all being male.. finally... a female and it sets fruit! Staring at it everyday checking the progress, and the moment comes! Picking the prize you tended in your garden, you race off to taste your achievement...... and it's bitter. Really bitter.. some can be bitter enough to trigger a need to vomit. No joke.

 Some strains are more prone to being bitter than others, but all cucumbers... ALL cucumbers have the ability to produce cucurbitacin. That would be the culprit that fouls the flavor of this fine fruit. Cucumbers produce this commonly in the plant's roots, stems, leaves.. and every now and then in domesticated strains it wanders into the fruit. It spreads along starting from the stem end and progresses towards the blossom end. 

 Some can be saved to a degree by peeling them under running water starting at the blossom end and peeling towards the stem end, rinsing the peeler as you go, and making sure to get the green layer as well under the skin. The bitterness can vary from cuke to cuke from the same plant. Think of it this way.. when the plant is stressed it is producing Cucurbitacin to protect itself, minimizing stress and you try to halt this self defense response. 

 Cucurbitacin is a defense mechanism for the plant to try to repel herbivores. In high amounts it is actually toxic. To actually be able to eat enough to be toxic.. you'd have to have no tastebuds and a stomach of steel... or be a cucumber beetle. Cruel joke isn't it? Cucurbitacin attracts cucumber beetles.. it actually puts them in eating overdrive. Here's another tidbit.. in the larval stages those beetles are also known as corn rootworms.

 I have the joys of the Southern variety occasionally wandering in my yard... although they are usually somewhat lost... muahahaha. 

 Back to the bitters.. temperature plays a part in tendencies of bitterness to show up, but a bigger trigger is plant stress. Heat and drought... in many areas that would be commonly called.. summer. To minimize bitter issues in cucumbers, you have to work from the ground up. Amending the soil with compost will add nutrients and top dressing or using compost teas will also help. If you can swing getting your soil tested so you can refine what elements need to be added is always extremely helpful. Make sure to keep an eye on soil moisture (ESPECIALLY in container plants.) Mulch helps, but also make sure at the end of the season you hot compost the bejeezus out of it if you have cucumber beetle issues. Also.. inadequate pollination can effect the flavor.

 The ultimate way to make sure your cucumbers are never ever bitter? Don't plant cukes. Seriously.. try opting for  Armenian which is actually a melon. If you can't live without cucumber in your diet and yet can never seem to avoid growing intensely bitter cukes.. give it a try, you won't regret it. 

* I suppose next I will jump into cucumber beetles and post links for places to get soil tested. 

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