Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Telegraph Improved Cucumber

For the last few years we grew a variety of cucumber called Sweeter Yet, as our mothers all want a mild, burpless English type cucumber. Sweeter Yet seemed to fit the bill very well. However, when we had the invasion by the barbarian hordes of squash bugs and cucumber beetles last year, the Sweeter Yet really failed to make the grade - in fact, our entire first planting died, and our second planting really struggled and didn't manage to bring forth more than a handful of cucumbers. But the worst thing about Sweeter Yet is that it is an F1 hybrid - no seed saving possible - from Monsanto. Yeah. Our least favourite company, in a field with a hell of a lot of competition. So the search is on to find a replacement.

We found this one at William Dam, and it looks very possible. It's an open-pollinated variety said to date to 1897, developed in England for growing in "frames" (greenhouses) but which does quite well when grown outdoors as well. At 65 to 70 days to maturity, it produces in good time. The resulting cukes are very long and slender. Ours have been rather inclined to curl, but I'm not sure all that much more than the Sweeter Yet. They are good keepers, crisp, mild, and with few and small seeds. I actually ate a slice - yes I did! - and did not suffer any indigestion as a result. This is exciting, as for years I have been convinced that I cannot eat raw cucumbers at all without suffering greatly. I have to say though, that while I thought the flavour pleasant, it was mild enough to verge on the bland.

I looked at a few old English seed listings on line; the 1898 Wholesale Catalogue of Vegetable Seeds as offered by E W King & Co Seed Growers, Coggeshall, Essex lists Rollinson's Telegraph as one of the varieties they carry. Sutton's catalogue of 1879 lists Telegraph, not improved. The number of greenhouse cucumber varieties available at the turn of the previous century in England was impressive, but few of them are still available, let alone widely available. Telegraph Improved is still very popular in England, and reasonably well known in North America.

William Dam says Telegraph Improved needs to have pollination to set fruit. Other listings sometimes say male flowers should be removed whenever they appear. William Dam is, of course, correct. Do NOT remove the male blossoms. Modern hybrid cucumbers are frequently parthenocarpic; that is, they will produce cucumbers without being fertilized first, just as chickens will produce eggs withour a rooster. Parthenocarpic fruits are seedless, so you won't run into the problem of tough, overdeveloped seeds in your salad. You won't be able to save any seeds either. At any rate, this point is moot, since Telegraph Improved is not parthenocarpic.

Because parthenocarpic cucumbers are now so common, people often believe that bitterness in cucumbers is caused when they are fertilized. This is not true. Cucumbers plants contain compounds called cucurbitacins, which make the rest of the plant taste bitter, but which may or may not be present in the fruit. Modern varieties have been selected for fruit low in cucurbitacins, but they may form there anyway, especially under environmental stress. Plant your cukes in good, neutral, compost-enriched soil, and keep them evenly watered and don't let them get too hot, and you will have excellent, bitter-free cucumbers. Of course, that's easier said than done. Water stress in particular can set off bitterness in cucumbers, and once a plant has started producing bitter fruit it will keep on doing so even if the immediate cause of the bitterness is remedied. So be sure to water your cukes!

There is a recessive gene, called bi, that will cause cucumbers that carry it not to have any bitterness, not even in the leaves and stems, and not to become bitter even under stress. I suspect that the Sweeter Yet had this gene, and that is why it was so thoroughly demolished by the barbarian hordes. I suspect that Telegraph Improved doesn't carry it, which is why it has been doing much better in our garden. This has been a truly excellent season for cucumbers, apart from the bug pressure, which I fear is now permanent. It's been mostly pretty mild, with regular and adequate rainfall. However, I don't believe that the Telegraph Improved cucumbers suffered in flavour even during our relatively short but sharp heatwave of early July.

When cucumbers are bitter-free or low in cucurbitacins, they seem to be less likely to cause indigestion. However, the corellation does not seem to be 100%, and people may react differently to different cucumbers. I am optimistic that this is a cucumber that I will be able to eat, but if you want to try it, and cucumbers are known to give you indigestion, eat a very small piece early in the day to be sure it will be okay before you partake in any quantity.

Telepraph Improved will need to be trellised; it's a longish rangy vine and the long narrow cucumbers will curl much worse if they aren't high enough up to dangle. A tomato cage won't cut it. Ours have done reasonably well, although due to the number of cucumber beetles, there has been a little mild wilt. Not too bad, though; certainly nothing like the instant death that befell the Sweeter Yet last year.

By the way, if you do get a bitter cucumber - don't eat it! Those bitter compounds not only taste bad, they are quite unhealthy as well and may make you ill. You can remove some of the bitterness from a slightly bitter cucumber, by cutting off the stem end and rubbing the two cut edges together until they foam, then rinsing it off and peeling it. But again, if it tastes nasty, don't eat it! You have nothing to gain but a belly-ache.

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