Photo and article by Donna Iverson
I’ve never had much luck growing cucumber but I keep trying. Cucumbers are a favorite salad addition, a simple cucumber salad is always welcome, and sometimes when I’m looking for a snack, cucumbers are my healthiest choice.
So I’m always disappointed when my garden cucumber plants wither on the vine, or attract pests that eat the leaves, or just don’t produce fruit. And yes, cucumbers are a fruit not a vegetable.
So this summer, it was thrilling when my cucumber plants thrived and produced cucumber after cucumber. The only problem was the cucumbers looked more like lemons than cucumbers. What was going on?
In previous years, I had purchased cucumber seedlings or friends had offered me their surplus plants. But in late winter of 2020, I ordered cucumber seeds from a catalog that featured heirloom varieties. I guess I wasn’t paying close attention and inadvertently checked the box for lemon cucumbers. We were in the early weeks of a global pandemic and my brain wasn’t fully functioning. When the packets and spring arrived, I sowed the little pellet-like seeds into my community garden bed. And waited and watered.
Eventually a couple of hardy plants appeared with strong stems and healthy looking prickly leaves. And then cucumbers began to grow. But they didn’t look like cucumbers. They looked like lemons. Huh??
Back to the catalog to double check my order. No the seed company had not made a mistake. I had clearly ordered lemon cucumber seeds.
So what exactly are lemon cucumbers? Officially, they are categorized as Cucumis sativus and also referred to by some gardeners as apple cucumbers and garden lemons. A cucumber that doesn’t want to be a cucumber?
When one was large enough to pick, I brought it home and began slicing. I took a bite expecting a lemony flavor. But even though it looked like a lemon, it tasted like a mild cucumber. And every lemon cucumber that matured on the vine, proved as mild as the one before. So, it has won a place in my garden as the first cucumber to survive to maturity and for its mild, non-bitter flavor.
Curious about its history, I learned that the lemon cucumber was introduced to this country in the late 1800s. It is popular in Indian food, where it is used to make a soup called Daal and added to chutney.
Out West, it is considered a specialty crop and if you grow lemon cucumbers you can download an app and sell your lemon cukes to restaurants, especially near San Diego.
Growing them requires well drained soil and a sunny spot. They need regular watering or they develop into odd shapes ..unlike the pleasing yellow rounded shape that you are looking for. They prefer temperatures of between 65 and 75 degrees and wither in hot weather. They also will not tolerate even a light frost.
Lemon cucumbers must be eaten in a couple of days and are best kept in the refrigerator wrapped in a paper towel inside a plastic bag.