A tasty Middle Eastern fruit that dates back thousands of years
Normally, we grow a trio of cucumber varieties in the vegetable garden: a small pickler (usually Boston pickling), Biet Alpha, a smaller (6 to 8 inch) spineless slicer, and “Long Green Improved,” a large (12 – 14 inch) American heirloom with lots of crunch.
This year we decided to change up the cucumber mix and swapped out the Biet Alpha for another Middle Eastern variety, the Armenian cucumber.
I didn’t know much about Armenian cucumbers and have no experience growing them, so I treated them like any other cucumber with some surprising results. Here’s what I learned:
It’s Not a CucumberTurns out the Armenian cucumber isn’t really a cucumber, but a member of the muskmelon family. It just happens to (mostly) look and taste like a cucumber.
The skin is thin, pale green, and slightly fuzzy. There’s no need to remove it when you’re cooking. The inside of the fruit is also pale green and is denser, less watery, and with fewer seeds than a true cucumber.
The flavor is mild – like slightly sweet cucumber with a hint of melon (which now makes sense).
The Armenian Cucumber is Really Old
Roman historian and naturalist, Pliny the Elder (23-79AD), the fruit was a dietary staple throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and had been for thousands of years.
For the poor, they were meat, drink, and a form of medicine. For the wealthy it was a treat.
Pliny mentions it was so liked by the emperor Tiberius that he insisted it be on his table morning, noon and night year-round. To make that happen, Tiberius’ gardeners actually invented raised garden beds on wheels that let them roll the plants into the sun and cover them in the cold so they could be grown in winter.
They Get Big
As a melon, Armenian cucumbers grow a lot larger and heavier than true cucumbers. Fruit can grow 16 – 24 inches and weigh several pounds, so the plants require substantially more support than other cucumbers do.
I know. I learned this the hard way when my whole cucumber trellis system collapsed like it was made of cardboard one afternoon.
The good news is, you can actually grow the cucumbers on the ground (like a melon). While they’ll take up a lot more room than gardening vertically, they do just fine.
Better yet, unlike cucumbers that start to get watery and weird when they’re too large or past their prime picking, Armenian cucumbers keep their texture and flavor even when they’re really big, so there’s no need to rush to harvest them before they get overripe.
Armenian Cucumbers Thrive in Dry, Hot Environments
It’s no surprise that a cucumber that originated in deserts of the Middle East would do well in the deserts of North America (or South America, Africa, Australia, and Asia).
Here in San Diego County, California rain ends in early April and we don’t see it again until late November. The time in between is dry and hot, often accentuated by (dry, hot) Santa Ana winds. While everything is irrigated with drip lines, it can still get so hot so fast the soil dries before the plants have a chance to absorb the water.
For the true cucumbers we layer on 2 – 3 inches of mulch to slow the evaporation. The Armenian cucumbers, on the other hand, need no such care. Their roots are adapted to dig deeper so the hot, fast drying surface soil in mid-to-late summer doesn’t affect them as much.
In fact, I noticed once the weather got hot, the other cucumbers stopped flowering and petered out. The Armenian cucumbers on the other hand started growing faster and flowering more.
Two Harvests in a Season
I started the original set of Armenian cucumber seedlings a week or two before spring began. The packet said it was about 65 days to harvest, but from the time I set the plants in the garden in mid-April to the time the first harvest came in, it was more like 75 days.
Admittedly, it was an unusually cool and cloudy spring, so everything was slower to get rolling. But I’ve noticed the second batch of seedlings, which I planted in the first week of July, have already produced their second set of true leaves and will probably be grown and flowering in another three to four weeks.
That means we’ll still have more fruit before summer ends in September, giving us two full harvests with plenty of room to spare if the weather changes for better or worse.
Melon or Cucumber, it’s Good
Even though it’s not a true cucumber, the Armenian cucumber is still a delicious and versatile fruit (vegetable?). Whether you’re enjoying them freshly sliced, diced in a salad, layered on a sandwich, or even blended in a chilled yogurt soup, you’ll find them a crisp, refreshing alternative to their cucurbit cousins.
If you’ve never grown Armenian cucumbers before, I highly recommend you do. I think you’ll enjoy them as much as I do!
|Common Name||Armenian Cucumber, yard-long cucumber, snake cucumber|
|Botanical Name||Cucumis melo|
|Native to||Middle East|
|Plant Type||Vining melon – can grow on ground or trellis|
|Mature Size||18 – 30 inches (fruit)|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun|
|Soil Type||Needs fertile|
|Soil pH||Any (not picky)|
|Water||Moderate. Needs more when young|
|Germination||7 – 10 days|
|Hardiness||Plant when soil warms to 70°|