Cucurbit Genetics Cooperative
Other Crop Genetics Cooperatives
Home About Membership Reports Gene Lists Conferences Links Search NCSU
Cucurbit Genetics Cooperative Report 14:1-4 (article 1) 1991

A Brief History of the Development of Cucumber Cultivars in the U.S.

Todd C. Wehner

Department of Horticultural Science, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC 27695-7609

Richard W. Robinson

Department of Horticultural Sciences, New York Agricultural Experiment Station, Geneva, NY 14456

Cucumber (Cucumis sativus L.) has been grown and bred for centuries. It is mentioned in the Bible and in ancient herbals. Chakravarty (6) reported that cucumber has been cultivated in Iraq for more than 5,000 years, both as a vegetable and for medicinal purposes. The origin and domestication of the cucumber was probably not in the Middle East, however, nor in Africa as some have suggested, but rather in Asia (7). The ancestor of the cucumber was probably an Asian plant with 7 pairs of chromosomes and small, very bitter fruit, similar to that of Cucumis sativus var. hardwickii (R.) Alef., which is indigenous to the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains.

Cucumber may be the oldest crop grown in a controlled environment. Pliny informs us that cucumber was so relished by the ancient Romans that they grew it in coldframes so that the emperor Tiberius could have them served on his table every day of the year (4). It has been grown since the early 1300s in England, were they were grown in the earliest greenhouses and known as "cowcumbers" (5).

Cucumber was introduced to the New World by Columbus who planted it in Haiti in 1494, and it was probably brought to the U.S. soon afterward (19). DeSoto reported finding a cucumber in Florida, which he considered superior to any he had seen in Spain. In 1779, General Sullivan destroyed cucumber fields grown by Indians (Native Americans) near Geneva, N.Y.

Some cultivars still available today from American seedsmen were introduced to the country from abroad more than a century ago. 'Early Russian', for example, was described by Naudin in France in 1859 (15). 'Early Cluster' was introduced prior to 1800. Boswell in 1949 concluded that all of the distinct types of cucumber grown then were known at least 400 years before.

Perhaps the first important American-bred cucumber cultivar of the last century was 'Tailby's Hybrid', developed by Joseph Tailby of Massachusetts from a cross between American and English cultivars and introduced in 1872. the success of 'Tailby's Hybrid' encouraged different seedsmen to develop new cultivars, and in the following decade such important cultivars as 'Arlington White Spine', 'Boston Pickling', and 'Chicago Pickling' were introduced.

In 1937, Whitaker and Jagger (22) reported that all but one of the cucumber cultivars extensively grown then in the U.S. were developed by private seed companies. the one exception was 'National Pickling' (also called 'National' or 'National Pickle'). The National Pickle Packers Association commissioned George Starr of Michigan State University to breed a new cultivar with fruit type suitable for both small pickles and large dills, and he did so by breeding and introducing the cultivar 'National Pickling' in 1924. This was an important cultivar for many years, and its genes still live on. Munger (14) used it to breed 'Yorkstate Pickling', and other germplasm that is the source of CMV resistance for Ohio MR17, Wisconsin SMR 18, MSU 713-5, and numerous other cultivars and breeding lines.

After the introduction of 'National Pickling', cucumber breeders continued to emphasize improvement of fruit shape and color (Table 1). Notable achievements were made by the Asgrow Seed Co. in the introduction of 'Marketer' in 1943, a slicer with good fruit type from the cross 'Longfellow' x 'Straight 8', and 'Model' in 1946, a pickling cultivar with white spines and dark green color. Both 'Marketer' and 'Model' were popular for many years because of their good fruit type, but eventually were superseded by disease resistant cultivars.

Breeding cucumbers for disease resistance began in the late 1920s, when R.H. Porter brought cucumber mosaic virus resistant germplasm from China to this country (18). He bred the cultivar Shamrock in 1943 from the cross 'Chinese Long' x 'Davis Slicer' (1). H.M. Munger bred slicer cultivars with a higher level of CMV resistance and with good fruit type, 'Tablegreen' in 1961 and 'Marketmore' in 1968, which became important both as open pollinated cultivars and as parents of F1 hybrid cultivars. 'Maine No. 2', released in 1939 by Bailey (2), was the first American cultivar resistant to scab. Its long, slender shape and late maturity limited its popularity, but it has been important as a parent of many other scab-resistant cultivars.

The next step in the improvement of cucumber cultivars was breeding for combined resistance to two or more diseases. J.C. Walker (21) combined resistance to scab and CMV in the cultivars Wisconsin SMR 9 and SMR 12, released in 1955, followed in 1958 by SMR 15 and SMR 18. Barnes (3) combined resistance to downy mildew (Pseudoperonospora cubensis (Berk. & Curt.) Rostow) and powdery mildew (Sphaerotheca fuliginea (Schl. ex Fr.) Poll.) in 'Palmetto' (1948) and 'Ashley' (1955), then added resistance to anthracnose (Colletotrichum lagenarium (Ross) Ellis & Halst.) for the 1961 release, 'Polaris', which is still popular today. Genes for resistance to additional diseases were identified and combined, culminating in the development of 'Sumter', with resistance to seven diseases, and Wisconsin 2757 (17), resistant to nine diseases - CMV, scab, anthracnose, downy mildew, powdery mildew, bacterial wilt (Erwinia tracheiphila (E. F. Smith) Holland), angular leaf spot (Pseudomonas lachrymans (E.F. Smith and Bryan) Carsner, target leaf spot (Corynespora cassiicola (Berk, & Curt.) Wei), and Fusarium wilt (Fusarium oxysporum (Schlecht.) Snyd. & Hans f. sp. cucumerinum Owen. Actually, most cultivars with resistance to scab have resistance to Fusarium wilt, since there appears to be linkage. However, the cultivars are usually not tested to verify Fusarium wilt resistance, since that disease has not been important commercially.

Meanwhile, progress was made in the improvement of other traits, such as sex expression and plant habit. A.E. Hutchins pioneered the development of dwarf-determinate cultivars and introduced 'Midget' in 1940 and 'Minnesota Dwarf XII' in 1949 (10). Dwarf-determinate plant habit was not used extensively, however, until later with the introduction of 'Castlepik' (20). 'Geneva', the first American cultivar bred for parthenocarpic fruit set, was introduced by Hawthorne and Wellington in 1930 (9). It did not become important and is no longer available, but there has been increased interest in recent years in breeding parthenocarpic cucumbers. Research has been done on compact (super-dwarf) types for high density populations (11), but better dwarf genes and cultivars are needed. Multibranching types, such as little leaf lines (8) or derivatives of C. sativus var. hardwickii (12) may enhance simultaneous fruiting and improve the yield in once-over harvest systems.

Monoecious hybrid cultivars have been available since 1945, when Oved Shifriss developed 'Burpee Hybrid', but the high cost of hybrid seed limited their commercial use. Development of gynoecious cultivars reduced the cost of producing hybrid seed and improved earliness and adaptation to mechanical harvesting. Germplasm with the gynoecious gene was brought from Korea to this country by E. Meader and distributed by the U.S.D.A. Plant Introduction system as PI 220860. Peterson (16) backcrossed the gynoecious gene into 'Wisconsin SMR 18' to develop MSU 713-5, female parent of the first gynoecious hybrid cultivar, 'Spartan Dawn'.

The nonbitter gene, which provides resistance to cucumber beetles and prevents fruit bitterness, has been transferred from Dutch germplasm to American cultivars and breeding lines, including 'Marketmore 80' and Wisconsin 2757. Improvement in cucumber cultivars over the previous 7 decades in the U.S. is summarized in Table 1. Still needed are cultivars with resistance to diseases such as zucchini yellow mosaic virus, papaya ringspot virus, gummy stem blight, and Rhizoctonia fruit rot. Arthropod (insect and arachnid) resistant cultivars are also needed, particularly for pickleworm, aphid, whitefly and spider mite. Further improvements are still needed in fruit quality, yield, earliness, and adaptation to the production environments of the U.S.

Table 1. Important steps in the genetic improvement of cucumbers in the U.S.

Cultigen Source Year Trait(s) of Interest z
Improvement of disease resistance
Shamrock Iowa Agr. Exp. Sta. 1937 CMV
Maine No. 2 Maine Agr. Exp. Sta. 1939 Scab
Palmetto S. C. Agr. Exp. Sta. 1948 DM PM
Wis. SMR 12 Univ. Wisconsin 1954 Scab CMV
Tablegreen Cornell Univ. 1961 CMV PM
Polaris S. C. Agri. Exp. Sta. 1961 DM PM Anth
Poinsett S. C. Agri. Exp. Sta. 1966 DM PM Anth ALS
Marketmore Cornell Univ. 1968 High CMV
Sumter S. C. Agri. Exp. Sta. 1973 DM PM Anth ALS CMV Scab WMV
Wis. 2757 Univ. Wisconsin 1982 DM PM Anth CMV Scab TLS BW FW
Improvement of other traits
National Pickling Mich. Agri. Exp. Sta. 1924 Fruit type
Geneva N. Y. Agri. Exp. Sta. 1930 Parthenocarpic
Midget Minn. Agr. Exp. Sta. 1940 Dwarf-determinate
Marketer Asgrow Seed Co. 1942 Fruit type
Burpee Hybrid Burpee Seed Co. 1945 Mon-Hyb CMV DM
Model Asgrow Seed Co. 1946 Fruit type
MSU 713-5 Mich. Agr. Exp. Sta. 1960 Gyn inbred
Spartan Dawn Mich. Agr. Exp. Sta. 1962 Gyn-Hyb CMV Scab
Ark. 79-75 Univ. Arkansas 1980 Little leaf habit
Castlepik Sunseeds (ARCO-Castle) 1984 Dwarf-determinate CMV Scab DM PM

z ALS - angular leafspot resistance; Anth - anthracnose resistance; BW - bacterial wilt resistance; CMV - cucumber mosaic virus resistance; DM - dowry mildew resistance; FW - Fusarium wilt resistance; Gyn - gynoecious sex expression; Hyb - hybrid; Mon - monoecious sex expression; PM - powdery mildew resistance; Scab - scab resistance; TLS - target leafspot resistance; WMV - watermelon mosaic virus-2 resistance.

Table adapted from Miller and Wehner (13).

Literature Cited

  1. Anonymous. 1957. New vegetable varieties list IV. Proc. Amer. Soc. Hort. Sci. 69: 574-587.
  2. Bailey, R. M. 1939. Progress in breeding cucumbers resistant to scab (Cladosporium cucumerinum). Proc. Amer. Soc. Hort. Sci. 36: 645-646.
  3. Barnes, W. C. 1961. Multiple disease resistant cucumbers. Proc. Amer. Soc. Hort. Sci. 77: 417-423.
  4. Bostock, J. and H.T. Riley (eds.). 1856. Pliny's Natural History of Plants 19: 154-156.
  5. Boswell, V. R. 1949. Our vegetable travelers. Nat. Geographic 61 (2): 145-217.
  6. Chakravarty, H. L. 1966. Monograph on the Cucurbitaceae of Iraq. Iraq Ministry Agr. Tech. Bul. 133, 144 pp.
  7. DeCandolle, A. 1985. Origin of Cultivated Plants. Appleton & Co., London.
  8. Goode, M. J., J. L. Bowers, and A. Bass, Jr. 1980. Little-leaf, a new kind of pickling plant. Ark. Farm Res. May and June, p 4.
  9. Hawthorne, L. R. and R. Wellington. 1930. Geneva, a greenhouse cucumber that develops fruit without pollination. N.Y. (Geneva) Agr. Exp. Sta. Bul. 580.
  10. Hutchins, A. E. 1940. 'Midget'--a new bush cucumber. Minn. Hort. 68: 8, 18.
  11. Kaufman, D. S. and R. L. Lower. 1976. Inheritance of an extreme dwarf plant type in the cucumber. J. Amer. Soc. Hort. Sci. 101: 150-151.
  12. Lower, R. L. and J. Nienhuis. 1990. Prospects for increasing yields of cucumbers via Cucumis sativus var. hardwickii germplasm. In: D. M. Bates, R. W. Robinson, and C. Jeffrey (eds.). 1990. Biology and Utilization of the Cucurbitaceae. Cornell Univ. Press, Ithaca, NY. pp 397-405.
  13. Miller, C. H. and T. C. Wehner. 1989. Cucumbers. In: Quality and preservation of vegetables (N. A. M. Eskin, ed.). CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. p. 245-264.
  14. Munger, H. M. 1989. Transforming germplasm resources to varieties in use. In: C. E. Thomas, (ed.). Proc. Cucurbitaceae 89: evaluation and enhancement of cucurbit germplasm. p. 4-8.
  15. Naudin, M. C. 1859. Essais d'une monographie des especes et des varietes du genie Cucumis. Ann. Sci. Nat. Ser. 4, 11:5-87.
  16. Peterson, C. E. 1960. A gynoecious inbred line of cucumber. Mich. Agr. Exp. Sta. Quart. Bul. 43: 40-42.
  17. Peterson, E. C., P. H. Williams, M. Palmer, and P. Louward. 1982. Wisconsin 2757 cucumber. HortScience 17: 268.
  18. Porter, R. H. 1929. Reaction of Chinese cucumbers to mosaic. Phytopathology 19: 85.
  19. Sturtevant, E. L. 1887. History of garden vegetables. Amer. Nat. 21: 903-912.
  20. Tigchelaar, E. C. (ed.). 1991. New vegetable variety list 23. HortScience 26: 343-357.
  21. Walker, J. C. and C. F. Pierson. 1954. Two new cucumber varieties resistant to scab and mosaic. Phytopathology 45: 451-453.
  22. Whitaker, T. W. and I. C. Jagger. 1937. Breeding and improvement of cucurbits. USDA Yearbook of Agriculture. pp 207-232.
Home About Membership Reports Gene Lists Conferences Links Search NCSU
Department of Horticultural Science Box 7609North Carolina State UniversityRaleigh, NC 27695-7609919-515-5363
Page citation: Wehner, T.C., Cucurbit Genetics Cooperative;
Created by T.C. Wehner and T. Ng, 1 June 2005; design by C.T. Glenn;
send questions to T.C. Wehner; last revised on 6 November, 2009