Reproduction is key to great cucumbers
Cucumber flowers are either male or female, and fruits develop only from female flowers. The male flowers supply pollen, which is carried by bees to the female flowers, whose ovaries, once the flowers are pollinated, swell.
Run-of-the-mill cucumber varieties have separate male and female flowers on the same plant. But each cucumber plant is somewhat flexible about its sexuality, pumping out more female flowers in response to better growing conditions. Fruit and seed production, after all, take a lot of energy.
And then there are cucumbers, called gynoecious types, that have been bred to bear only female flowers. After all, why waste any of a plant’s energy producing male flowers?
Gynoecious cucumber varieties tend to yield more fruits and bear them earlier in the season (which is good) but over a shorter period of time (which can be good or bad depending on how you use the cucumbers).
“Whoa,” you might say, “no way those female flowers can swell into fruits without male flowers to provide pollen.” Good point. That’s why seed packets for gynoecious cucumbers contain a few seeds of standard cucumbers to provide enough male flowers — it doesn’t take many — to provide pollen for all those female flowers. Those standard cucumber seeds are dyed for identification.
Another way to get pollen to a gynoecious cucumber is to borrow it from your neighbors. No need to walk next door, though: Bees will carry it over from as far as a half-mile or more away.
Lastly, you might get a gynoecious cucumber to bear fruit by growing a variety whose fruits develop without any pollination whatsoever — a parthenocarpic variety. Like parthenocarpic grapes, persimmons and figs, parthenocarpic cucumbers have no seeds.
Parthenocarpic cucumbers look and taste better when not pollinated. Stray pollen on one of their female flowers causes part of the fruit to swell, as if pregnant. Parthenocarpic varieties, such as Sweet Success and Telegraph, are therefore ideal for growing in greenhouses.
Let’s now move beyond sex and discuss how to find seeds for this summer’s cukes. Most of the cucumbers that you see on grocers’ shelves are so-called American slicers. This year, you might want to grow pickling varieties which, although billed for making pickles, have excellent flavor. For something extraordinary, try Lemon cucumbers, which are round and light yellow. They might look like lemons, but their flavor and texture are pure cucumber.
Other parts of the world offer cucumbers that are, to some palettes, more flavorful than American slicers. From across the Pacific comes Suyo Long, with thin-skinned, soft-spined fruits that are long and curved, crisp in texture and sweet in flavor. From Israel come Mideastern, or beit alpha, varieties, such as Amira, with smooth, tender skins and mild flavor. These varieties are gynoecious and parthenocarpic.
For something extraordinary and foreign, try the Armenian cucumber, also know descriptively as Yard Long cucumber. These fruits have smooth, pale skins and few seeds. Unlike other cucumbers, which lose quality if you let them stay on the vine too long, Armenian cucumbers actually get better and sweeter. Why? Because Armenian cucumbers are, in fact, melons.