The vegetable garden in the front yard attracts visitors. I love that people stop in the midst of their walk or drive to talk about gardens and the weather. Some of these people ask me gardening questions. They see so many vegetables growing and they get some idea that I know a lot about growing vegetables. I’m quite sure I know just a little. The questions invite me to dig a little deeper and learn a little more. Last night, a woman from around the corner asked about cucumbers. She said that her first cucumber was very tasty but the next one was, terribly, bitter…same plant, same conditions….Why? I passed on what I had heard about cutting the end off the cucumber and rubbing in a circular pattern to draw the bitterness out. I fully acknowledge, now, that this was a lame response. Since then, I’ve done some research. There are compounds in the cucumber plant, stems, leaves, and roots called cucurbitacins (primarily, B and C) that cause the bitterness. Different varieties have varying amounts of these compounds and sometimes they will go into the fruit as well as the vegetative parts of the plant. The amount of bitterness that can accumulate varies, even, from fruit to fruit. The bitterness is, generally, concentrated just under the skin and at the stem end of the cucumber. You can try to improve the taste of a bitter cucumber by peeling away the skin and cutting away more deeply at the stem end. If you find that the whole thing is bitter, compost it. There is an enzyme called elaterase that transforms the cucurbitacins into non-bitter compounds but these enzymes are inhibited in cool weather. Therefore, the temperature has direct relevance to the bitterness problem. Temperature fluctuations of more than 20 degrees can cause bitterness. Cucumbers can grow in temperatures between 60 and 90 degrees F but do best between 65 and 75. Moisture stress may contribute to more cucurbitacins and so providing an even supply of water may help reduce bitterness. Mulching can help to accomplish this. While temperatures and sunlight, water and soil preparation can influence the production of elaterase and cucurbitacins; genetics play a role too. There are varieties that are reported to have a lower percentage of bitter cukes.
I did not have bitterness problems with my cucumbers this year. Regarding cucumbers, the only difficulties I’ve had were cucumber eating pests (my dog) and downy mildew (I think) and, so, I have no more cucumbers. I have no new cucumber pictures for you. I have purple podded pole beans which are very fine to look at but, admittedly, they are not cucumbers. I am a new convert to cucumbers since finding a variety I actually enjoy. I’ve begun to care. Today, I planted a new patch in a different area of the yard. I planted the Uzbekski cucumber which is an open pollinated heirloom. I hope to get at least a few so that I can grab a reasonable photo and save the seeds. If you are saving seeds, make sure you select for non-bitterness!