SEED STORIES | Telegraph Improved Cucumber: A Victorian Obsession

The Telegraph Improved is an English
cucumber dating to the Victorian era. It’s the result of much tinkering and
refining by generations of busy British breeders. The effort certainly shows — each
fruit is long and slender, with tender, thin skin, a sweet nutty flavor and
small inconspicuous seeds. The Telegraph type cucumber was bred for
an impossibly long and uniform look — a hat tip to the sometimes absurd
perfectionism of Victorian gardening. The precise origins of the original
Telegraph cucumber are murky, but the name likely comes from the shape of its
fruit: long and skinny, like a telegraph cable. This variety was first developed
for growing in the opulent English glass greenhouses of 19th and 20th century
British aristocrats. The most impeccable specimens were submitted for judging at
local garden shows, and these fierce competitions were the ultimate test of
breeding innovation and skill. Practically speaking, straight cucumbers
are easier to pack and ship, and crooked ones are harder to cut and prepare. It
seems that every prominent plant breeder of the Victorian era tried his hand at
improving the Telegraph cucumber. In 1911, the Journal of the Royal Horticultural
Society included several Telegraph type cucumber varieties. Most sported very
British names like “Her Majesty,” “King George,” and “Purley Park Hero.” The Journal
also listed several Telegraph Improved cucumbers, each named for a different
breeder, many from the most influential gardening family dynasties of England.
The Telegraph type soon became the archetypal English cucumber. French seed
house Vilmorin mentioned in its catalogue not one but two Telegraph
Improved cukes: the Rollison’s Improved Telegraph and the Jarman’s
Telegraph. Selecting for long and slim fruit wasn’t the only way that Victorian
era gardeners aimed for straight. They also trained vines up trellises. But
British inventor George Stephenson — famous for creating the world’s first
public rail line — wasn’t satisfied. He obsessed over growing perfect cukes in
his garden at Tapton House, which is how he came to patent the glass cucumber
straightener. It was sort of a glass prosthetic for little cukes to grow into.
An ad in the 1848 gardeners Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette offered the
cuke straightener in both 12- and 26-inch models. The straightener was a must-have
for fine gardeners of the era. And for those on a budget author Harriet Ann Desalis suggested a DIY hack, using a cracked lamp chimney instead. Eventually
this superfluous garden tool fell out of favor. It was just too expensive, not to
mention impractical, to make each tube by hand.
Today Stephenson’s glass straightener is just an amusing reminder of the
sometimes preposterous and persnickety gardening habits of the Victorian
aristocracy. While the cucumber glass didn’t survive beyond the Industrial
Revolution, the Telegraph Improved cucumber did. This thin-skinned, sweet-
flavored variety is still considered the quintessential English cucumber, and
thanks to its naturally straight form, there’s no need for a glass mold to keep it in line. Thanks so much for watching “Seed Stories.”
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