The Origin of Cultivated Fruits and Vegetables

Plant Origins

Most plants are poisonous. Humans have cultivated those few that were edible and nutritious or good tasting, and have selectively bred them over thousands of years for a variety of traits including size, flavor, and color. We have also moved them around a lot! The geographic region from which our food crops originated is not always obvious from their present day distribution. Michael Pollan’s book, The Botany of Desire, or the documentary film made from it, is a good review if you’re interested in learning more about the origins and selective breeding of plants to produce more favorable forms.

While today we grow most crops in many more places than from whence they originated, modern agriculture tends to favor large stands of a single variety, like Russet potatoes, or the Cavendish banana most of us know, which comes from a single clone. Such monocultures are more susceptible to disease, so it may be very useful for us to go back to the places where wild types or less common varieties grow (if they still do). We can use that genetic diversity to help make our modern crops more hardy while also possibly allowing for new and interesting types.

Fruit & Veggie Trivia:

Would it surprise you to learn that the humble tomato, a member of the deadly nightshade family, was once believed to be poisonous, and was called the love apple? Or that throughout most of history, the Italians had no tomato sauce for their spaghetti?

Isn’t it interesting that the Irish, who flocked to America in the 1850s because of potato famines in their homeland, never had potatoes before Columbus? How did they get so attached to them? What did they eat before?

Did you know that papaya and pineapple, fruits associated with Hawaii, originated in Central and South America? With the possible exception of the coconut, the Polynesians carried most of their food crops with them by outrigger canoe from island to island as they settled the South Pacific.

Can you guess which vegetable is fermented to make Vodka in Russia? Hint-it isn’t a grape!

Oranges grow very well in Florida and California, but they’ve only been growing there since the Spanish missionaries brought them. Where did they come from?

Speaking of grapes, how could grapes be native to both the Middle East and North America, but nowhere else? Why might strawberries be native to both North and South America but not Central America?

Did you know that cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, collards, and chinese cabbage are all one species, Brassica oleracea? They have been artifically bred from wild cabbage to emphasize different parts of the plant. Maybe that’s why if you dislike one you tend to hate them all!

Did you know that one of the likely reasons the North American Indians never developed agriculture on a large scale was that there was just nothing edible? This only began to change when they began trading with their more agriculturally prosperous neighbors in Central and South America.

Humans came out of Africa, but the Middle East is the “Cradle of Civilization.” Could it have anything to do with all the good stuff to eat that was available there?

The fruit and vegetable “Who am I” game

1. Sometimes people make a juice out of me, but don’t drink me too often or you’ll turn orange!

2. When Columbus landed in the new world, he thought he was in India so he called the natives “Indians.” He was told to bring back spices, so guess what he called me?

3. In Germany, people who first grew me tried to eat my leaves, but they tasted terrible. They almost gave up on me till they tried my tubers!

4. When you cook me, I will weep and sigh.

5. I used to be called a love apple, and people thought I was poisonous. Now I’m on your pizza.

6. Russians ferment me to make Vodka. Hint: I’m not a grape.

7. I was taken out of the wild in Europe and turned into all of the following: kale, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, collards.

8. I grow in huge plantations in Hawaii, but I’m an immigrant from South America.

9. I came from India, and I’m very sour.

10. Native Americans ground me into a “meal” and used me for baking.

11. If you’ve eaten me, you’ve also probably eaten the tiny wasp that died inside my fruit.

12. I am a North American, and am one of the very few blue foods.

13. I am incorrectly called a berry, and my seeds sit on the outside of a pulpy cusion.

14. I have a mutant relative, the nectarine, that isn’t fuzzy.

15. My kind of fruit is called a “pome”, and that’s my real name in French.

16. I might be used to scare people in the Autumn, but I also make a great tasting pie!

17. My family can “fix” nitrogen in my roots, so growing me actually improves your soil!

18. People eat my flowers, and they love my heart, but I am thorny so be careful.

19. When a blight destroyed my crop, thousands of Irish starved and left their homeland for the New World.

20. Wheat, rice, corn, oats, barley, millet, and bamboo are all members of this family. Without us, most humans would go hungry. What is our family called?

Answers: 1. carrot 2. hot peppers 3. potato 4. eggplant 5. tomato 6. grain or potato 7. cabbage 8. pineapple 9. lemon 10. corn 11. fig 12. blueberry 13. strawberry 14. peach 15. apple 16. pumpkin 17. beans 18. artichoke 19. potato 20. the grasses


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