Chile: Sweet cucumber studies to pave new export avenues
The fruit, known as pepino dulce in Spanish, resembles a melon and also goes by names including pepino, melon pear, Solanum muricatum, and pepino melon.
The country's most important growing area for the crop is the Limari Valley in the IV (Coquimbo) region, but the ongoing water shortage means plant material is being lost.
Now the Chilean Institute of Agricultural Research (INIA) is carrying out a research project to find the sweet cucumber's genetic heritage in the valley and apply for a Geographic Indication (GI) to boost the sector.
INIA research and development deputy director Constanze Jana told www.freshfruitportal.com the crop was 'endemic' in the Southern Andean Region and now a 'marginal' fruit in Chile.
"There are no commercial varieties, only ecotypes with very variable productivity, and although plant materials from Chile have been taken to other countries to develop varieties, there is no local development for this species," she said.
Jana highlighted the fruit has a high content of polyphenols compared to other crops, a high water content, and a low-calorie count, as well as being rich in minerals and vitamins.
"These qualities make for a converted fruit in European markets," she said.
All Chilean sweet cucumber production currently goes to the domestic market, despite previous attempts to export the crop.
"There were some bids to export to Argentina, and eventually some were made, but in low volume," she said, noting New Zealand, Israel and Spain had all developed varieties that are currently sold to the European market at high prices.
In terms of the research, Jana said the first challenge would be to rescue plant materials in the arid areas that have been adversely affected by the drought.
The second is to characterize the plant materials on the morphological, molecular and functional levels, to understand exactly what there is in Chile.
Along with this issue there is the challenge of creating consistency in the productive clones through a breeding program, so they can be easily marketed.
"Thirdly, we need to improve the postharvest life of the sweet cucumber by understanding its behavior under different management conditions and treatments, and evaluate its real export possibilities," Jana said.
"From there I believe we can start to open markets."
In Chile the fruit is produced in coastal regions where there is a low probability of frosts, which is highly beneficial given the crop is sensitive to cold temperatures.
As well as the Limari Valley, the fruit is also grown in the V (Valparaiso) region but in smaller quantities.
Jana said all varieties would be evaluated for their polyphenol content both in the skin and in the pulp, as well as sugars and acids that define its organoleptic quality.
Photo: Wikimedia Creative Commons