Cucumber-melons aren’t hybrids of cucumbers and melons but rather immature melons that are intended to be enjoyed just as you would eat a cucumber. To explain the origin of cucumber-melons and what sets them apart from standard cucumbers, my guest this week is Jay Tracy, a cucumber-melon expert and seed seller.
Jay grew up in California in the Bay Area, near the Santa Cruz Mountains. He did not have a gardening background but he’s had a love for living things his whole life, he says. “There was so much biodiversity. I was always with the animals — interested in the plants and animals,” he says. He discovered cucumber-melons while living in Tucson, Arizona, and made a hobby and side business out of them, and now lives just north of the Bay Area, in zone 9b, where he continues to raise cucumber-melons personally and through contract growers.
In his day job, Jay is a teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing. He started out teaching in 2007 right around the same time that his youngest daughter — his fourth child — was born. At the time his hobby was raising exotic praying mantises, and with four kids in the house, he decided to switch to a less expensive hobby.
“With four little ones, gardening was a better option and a little more socially accessible,” Jay says.
However, Jay found out after a year or so that gardening in Tucson is very difficult. He kept trying different crops that he could grow successfully in the desert climate. He came upon Armenian cucumbers, also known as snake melons. “Even in Tucson, they’ll grow fabulous,” Jay says. “Even when it’s 110 outside, they’re fine. But the issue is they would go from being kind of small and tender, yet dry, to within a week being large and almost harder than a carrot, and juicy.”
Jay says juicy is good, and tender yet crisp is good, but the texture is not quite how he wanted it, and the window when he could pick the Armenian cucumbers was hard.
Jay went to a talk given by George Brookbank, an extension agent in Tucson with the University of Arizona who wrote columns for the Arizona Daily Star and other publications as well as several gardening books. (Brookbank died in 2018 at the age of 93.) He asked George if there was something better to grow than Armenian cucumbers, and George recommended serpentine cucumbers.
Jay found the striped Armenian (or painted serpent), the dark Armenian (tortarello barese) and from Southern Italy, carosello, a bitter-free cucumber-melon that is easy on the digestion. He had also begun blogging at ScientificGardener.com, and an Italian gentleman reached out to him to suggest he try growing carosello. They bonded over carosello immediately and became great friends.
Jay began trying a bunch of cucumber-melon varieties from a “bio-patriarch” in Italy named Angelo. Jay was hooked, and within a couple of years, he decided to make a large purchase from an Italian seed company. He began selling seeds online, including on Etsy, and started CucumberShop.com.
When the COVID pandemic hit, Jay’s seed business took off. He was still carrying sought-after varieties that the big companies had sold out of, so many new customers found him.
He has also continued blogging at ScientificGardener.com, adding a new post every Friday. He notes that he comes from a long line of engineers and approaches subjects scientifically: “How do we do this, or what can we learn? Or what can we change up? I’m always interested in how to do things differently to make things more effective as we go,” he says.
Cucumber-Melons: Melons as Cucumbers
Cucumbers are all varieties of the species Cucumis sativus. Cucumber-melons are varieties of the species Cucumis melo, which includes honeydew and cantaloupe, but cucumber-melons lack sweetness and are intended to be harvested and eaten while immature.
Since ancient Egypt, if not earlier, people grew melons as cucumbers, Jay explains. There were no other cucumbers in Africa, the Middle East and Europe then. (What we call cucumbers arrived from India much later, after the year 700.) The cucumbers grown back when in Africa were likely light colored and variable in size, shape and texture, he says, and as the melons were moved around to different areas, different varieties developed in time.
“They don’t know everything,” Jay says. “There’s some archeological evidence, but that’s about it.”
Jay has made friends around the world to gain access to various cucumber-melons.
“There’s a hotspot for these things in Southern Italy, and so there’s this region in southern Italy on the heel of the boot where these things have been grown for centuries,” he says.
Many of the varieties he works with date back to before the 20th century, with no recorded history intact. Others were developed more recently, so more is known about their origins.
As regular cucumbers with better storage qualities arrived and became the favored cucumbers in the rest of Europe, cucumber-melons have kept a foothold in Southern Italy.
Regular Cucumbers vs. Cucumber-Melons
Jay points out that in the Seed Savers Exchange yearbook, there are 165 pages for tomatoes, 25 pages for snap beans and only five pages for cucumbers. He says the No. 1 reason there are fewer cucumber varieties in circulation is the taste — people don’t like the bitterness and aftertaste, due to cucurbitacin compounds that some cucumber varieties have that can also cause digestion issues.
The nice thing about cucumber-melons is that they do not cause digestion problems. If you can eat muskmelon, you can eat a cucumber-melon, Jay says.
Regular cucumbers become bitter when the plants experience stress, he explains, but when a cucumber-melon plant experiences stress, it will just produce seeds sooner.
Regular cucumbers are more tolerant of cool, wet conditions, while melons and cucumber-melons prefer warmer night temperatures.
Cucumbers require more water. Cucumber-melons have been dry farmed for centuries, so if you start out watering during the beginning of the season and cut off watering as the season progresses, they continue to produce.
Regular cucumbers are picked by length, while cucumber-melons are picked by diameter, generally 1.5 to 2 inches if cylindrical and 3 or 4 inches if round.
Regular cucumbers stay small for a while, but cucumber-melons, like zucchinis, size up rather quickly. When a cucumber-melon plant is about a foot in diameter, it begins to put on a big flush of fruit, right in the middle of the plant. Once you harvest all that fruit, the vines will continue to grow and produce fruit in the center or a little farther out on the vine.
“It will just keep growing and growing and growing because it’s truly a melon — it’s not a cucumber,” Jay says.
Jay uses heavy-gauge 6-foot-tall tomato cages around each plant, and as they vine out he trains the vines up the centers of the cages. When the vines grow up and over, they are producing quite a lot while not taking up a lot of room. They can also be allowed to sprawl on the ground, probably 6 feet in diameter.
What Cucumber-Melons Taste Like
Cucumber-melons are almost as watery as a regular cucumber, Jay says, and the texture is crisp yet tender. “You bite through the skin, you hardly notice it,” he adds.
While regular cucumbers have spines on the plant, cucumber-melons have fuzz on the plants, all the way to the fruit — but the fuzz can be brushed right off.
Some cucumber-melons are kind of bland, with not a lot of flavor, like the light leccese, while the dark leccese and striped leccese have very deep complex flavors that you don’t find in regular cucumbers, Jay says. “It’s more like a meal” and perfect for packing for lunch, he adds.
C. Melo Subspecies
The variety Cucumis melo var. flexuosus includes the snake melons, such as the white Armenian cucumber and striped Armenian cucumber.
In Sardinia, Italy, a popular cucumber-melon is called facussa, a slender tortarello-type cucumber with bands of dark splotching.
C. melo var. chate or adzhur includes smaller cucumber-melons often grown for texture. They may be round or cylindrical and are often more juicy than snake melons.
In Asia, the subspecies C. melo var. conomon is found.
C. melo var. Alwarenis, known as the arya cucumber, is found in India and is “crazy different than the rest,” Jay says. “They can take heat like no other, they can take drought like no other. They’re pretty amazing. But at the same time, the flavor and texture are not quite as good as some of the others.”
His favorite variety of cucumber-melon is striped carosello leccese, also known as meloncella fasciata.
Growing Cucumber-Melons for Seed
Last year, Jay grew three cucumber-melon varieties to seed. He originally started out with one or two plots, but today, after enlisting friends, he grows on eight plots. He also grows in a greenhouse at home, hand-pollinating the plants, and contracts with four farmers to grow out his seeds.
He reports that he had run into problems with his snake melon seed suppliers and their seeds not germinating as well and the quality declining. He said an issue with open-pollinated varieties is that the varieties were not well taken care of by people who knew what the varieties should be like and selected for the best traits.
“We need to know what we’re selecting for. We need to know what the variety’s supposed to be like in selecting the best traits,” he says. “Instead of eating the best fruit, you save the best fruit for the next generation so you can have something that you really like and enjoy and you can share with others.”
Because cucumber-melons intended for eating are picked while immature, they do not have viable seeds yet. The fruit must be allowed to mature to full melon size in order to save the seeds — though the fruit intended for seed saving won’t taste as good or have the desired texture.
When cucumber-melons eventually mature and get to the ripening stage, they have the sweet smell of a melon. That’s when they are ready to harvest the seeds. They can also be stored at this stage, unlike regular cucumbers, which will decay.
Growing Tips for Cucumber-Melons
Cucumber-melons love heat in the air and good drainage. Like regular cucumbers, they are very sensitive to water-logged soil. Respiratory roots won’t be able to breathe properly in soil that stays wet, and the plants will suffer.
Most cucurbits and melons prefer to be direct-sown. They don’t take well to transplanting, as they have fragile roots. If you do wish to pre-sprout, Jay recommends using soil blocks, so the plants can be transplanted without disturbing the roots. A step up from that is 4-inch strawberry baskets, which can be planted directly in the ground — the roots will grow right through. Jay uses 10-inch hydroponic baskets in 5-gallon buckets with holes drilled in the sides so they don’t get too full of water.
Jay generally does not grow in containers because they create issues in hot climates. “No plant wants to be grown in 80-degree soil or above,” Jay says.
Most cucumber-melons are monoecious, meaning male and female flowers are found on the same plant. Fruit set occurs when pollen is transferred from a male flower to a female flower. Within days, the fruit begins to grow. People who want much more fruit, or who are growing in a greenhouse free of pollinators, will prefer to grow parthenocarpic varieties, which have “virgin fruit” that don’t require pollination.
On a monoecious plant, an unpollinated female flower will turn yellow-ish and fall off, but on a parthenocarpic plant, the unpollinated female flowers won’t fall off — they’ll set fruit. However, an unpollinated flower’s fruit will not produce viable seed. Then there are gynoecious plants, which are typically hybrids that exclusively make female flowers.
Cucumber-Melon Diseases and Issues
Powdery mildew is the No. 1 disease issue when growing cucumber-melons. Mosaic viruses much less so, according to Jay. Another problem is cucumber-melons started outdoors too early in the season when the weather is cool. If the plants are put out in the cold, they will dither and struggle.
What Jay wants gardeners to know about cucumber-melons is just how much fun they are to raise.
“A lot of times people have a lack of success,” he says of gardening. “It is really hard to grow in the desert Southwest. It’s really hard to grow in certain areas. It’s really hard when you have a short season — and these can solve a lot of those problems and can give you a crop of something that you just really enjoy.”
If you haven’t already listened to my conversation with Jay Tracy on cucumber-melons, you can do so now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
Have you tried growing cucumber-melons? How was your experience? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
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“Is It a Cucumber or a Melon?” by Margaret Roach, The New York Times
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