Scientifically Are Cucumbers a Fruit Or Vegetable?

Whether a cucumber is a fruit or vegetable is actually quite a loaded and debated question. The truth is that cucumbers are both a fruit and a vegetable at the same time.

To explain this you have to look at the true definition of the terms “fruit” and “vegetables”.

Simply put, a fruit is the means that a plant spreads its seeds into the world. On the other hand, a vegetable is any plant that is meant to be consumed.

Are you confused yet?

So fruits are also vegetables, but a vegetable is not always a fruit? Hmmm.

So to sum up the loaded question of if a cucumber is a fruit or a vegetable?…

Yes and no, and the USDA plant classification system is very complex and confusing.

The USDA classifies the cucumber as a vegetable. You can check out USDA’s article here.

Why is there so much confusion about if a cucumber is a fruit or a vegetable?

So where does all this confusion about cucumbers come from?

I remember when I was in elementary school there a smarty walking around talking about how tomatoes where fruits and not vegetables.

That smarty pants kid thought they were so dang smart, but really tomatoes are both, or either, depending on who you ask.

When we use the word vegetable we are referring to any edible part of a plant. Merriam Webster defines “fruit” as

the usually edible reproductive body of a seed plant or a product of plant growth (such as grain, vegetables, or cotton).

Wait, what?

The term vegetable is in the very definition of the word fruit. Yep, I’m officially confused.

One important factor when condsidering this from a scientific perspective is that the term “fruit” and “vegetable” have no real botanical meaning.

Instead they are more defined by culture.

With that in mind, “vegetable” usually indicates all the edible parts of a plant, while “fruit” usually refers to the part of a plant that contains the seeds.

So, the flowers, leaves, stems, and fruit all are part of the vegetable as a whole.

So let’s break it down according to who you ask.

Are you speaking as a botanist or a cook?

A fruit is a seed-bearing structure that develops from a flowering plant.

The reason we eat a fruit is not for the seeds, it’s for the fleshy part that is there to sustain the seeds.

We may or may not eat the seeds too, but the focus is on the fleshy bit.

A vegetable is any other part of the plant- the roots, stalks, leaves and stems. It’s not a botanical term.

Botanists call “vegetables” by the part of the plant they are- like rhubarb, which is the stalk, and potato, which is the root. In the most general definition, a vegetable is a plant harvested for food – things that come from plants that continue to live season after season (like trees) bear fruit.

But, that’s a contentious definition too and not one botanists recognize, however it does align mostly with the cultural view of fruits and vegetables.

Lets ask the botanist?

So is a cucumber a vegetable or a fruit?

The botanical definition means anything with seeds (like cucumbers, avocado, eggplant/aubergines, tomato, squash, etc) are a fruit, and plant parts without seeds (spinach, beets, potato, kale, etc) are just plants (to botanists), and as we eat them, they are vegetables (to us).

Botanically, the cucumber is classified as a fruit.

Common garden “vegetables” that actually count as fruit include cucumbers, squash, peppers, peas, beans and tomatoes.

Vegetables encompass all other edible parts of a plant that aren’t fruit, including roots, tubers, stems, and leaves.

So what about tomato farmers? What do they think about it?

The farming industry classifies the two in the following way:

Everything that grows on a herbaceous plant is a vegetable
Everything that grows on a woody plant is a fruit.

So within the farming industry since cucumbers dont grow on trees they are vegetables.

Another argument made for the tomato as a vegetable is that it grows on a plant that only lasts one season, or an annual.

In vegetable farming, the plant is finished when the vegetables are harvested. This is also the case with tomatoes.

So if a cucumber was picked from a tree, like an apple, and the tree when on to live many years and produce more tomatoes then it would be considered a fruit by farmers.

Read more about starting a backyard vegetable garden here.

Lets ask the cook?

So is a cucumber a vegetable or a fruit?

Culinary speaking we need to look at how we use cucumbers in our everyday life.

Where do you find cucumbers in the supermarket?

Usually, they are in amongst the other and away from the apples and pears.

Once you get your into the kitchen, fruits and vegetables are differentiated based on when you eat them and the sugar content:

So is a cucumber a vegetable or a fruit?

We mainly use cucumbers in entrées and savory dishes such as sauces, soups, and salsas.

To many cooks tho, and to most people, plants that are savoury rather than sweet are considered vegetables, such as peppers, cucumber, etc, and things that are sweet (like apples) as fruits.

You think cucumbers are confusing? Try to define what corn is.

  • It is a fruit, as it is the seed-bearing part of the plant that we eat. (inside the corn kernel is the seed- the corn kernel is the fleshy bit)
  • It’s a vegetable as its a plant harvested for eating.
  • It is a grain, when it is dried, as it is the dried seed of a type of grass (did you know corn was a grass?) In fact, corn is called a “vegetable grain”.

Hope that makes sense!

Technically, you can call a cucumber either a fruit or a vegetable, and you will be both right and wrong depending on the perspective of the person you are speaking to.

Then there are legumes.

They aren’t the fruit- they are the seeds. We don’t eat the fruit- we throw it away, and just eat the seeds (kidney beans, chick peas). If we eat the pod and the seeds, its a fruit. If we eat just the seed, it’s a legume.

Wait!

How about Tomatoes? Is a tomato a fruit or vegetable?

Historically why does it even matter?

So over the years the debate over fruit and vegetable classifications has been intense and actually ended up in the supreme court and like all things it all comes down to the money…

In 1883, there was a tax place on imported vegetables that helped to protect the domestic farmers. Then in 1886, a farmer from the West Indies tried to import a shipment of tomatoes through the port of New York. At that time, vegetables were subject to the import tax but was not.

This foreign farmer argued against the tax which the port placed on the shipment, which they considered vegetables. The farmer (Nix) paid the tax just to get his product into the states, but later sued the port of New York. Nix argued that botanically the tomato is a fruit and should not have been subject to the taxation on vegetables.

That lawsuit eventually ended up in the Supreme Court. The court decided that while tomatoes do fit the botanical definition of fruit, consumers think of tomatoes as vegetables and that is how they should be legally defined.

So the through this court case involving tomatoes, it was ruled that even thought something is the “fruit” of a plant it only matters how it is most commonly used culinary. Since tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, peas and every other food that is grown from the flower of a plant is not usually consumed as a dessert, they are vegetables.

The Verdict

Cucumbers are the fruit of a cucumber plant which is a vegetable.

So call them whatever one you want either way cucumbers are delicious and nutritious, so keep on growing and eating those cucumbers.

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