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Mr. Smarty Plants - Bitterness in cucumbers

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Saturday - June 24, 2006

From: Austin, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Edible Plants
Title: Bitterness in cucumbers
Answered by: Nan Hampton

QUESTION:

Bitter Cukes: We have a question about Burpless Burpee cucumbers. We've planted them with success several years in a row in our Austin backyard. This year, although the cucumbers look fine, they are extremely bitter tasting and not fit to eat. Could fertilizer be the culprit?

ANSWER:

There is agreement on what compounds cause the bitterness in cucumbers. They are cucurbitacin B and cucurbitacin C and these occur in all parts of the plant—leaves, stem, roots—but rarely in the fruit. Another compound produced by the cucumber, an enzyme called elaterase, modifies the cucurbitacins to reduce their bitter flavor. The variable amount of bitterness found from year to year or from plant to plant or even from fruit to fruit on the same plant is thought to depend on the activity of the elaterase. Environmental conditions—temperature or moisture, for instance—may affect the amount of elaterase produced. However, there is no clear agreement on exactly what those environmental factors are. Sources in the northwest and in California cite cool temperatures as being a major cause for the bitterness; whereas, Texas A&M PlantAnswers implicates hot temperatures. Temperature stress might be a better description of the cause of bitterness. There is some evidence that water stress could also be responsible. One thing that you might try is being sure that your plants are well watered. This could result in the fruits that are developing now being less bitter.

One solution you may have is to peel and trim your cucumbers extensively before you eat them. The stem end typically is bitterer than the flower end of the fruit. Also, right under the skin is usually bitterer. By careful peeling away of the skin and some of the outer flesh and removing more of the stem end of the fruit you may be able to enjoy the ones you have.

 

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