Most people are aware that almost all the meat we eat comes from domesticated animals, which is part of the reason ‘wild’ salmon and game like deer is seen as so special. When it comes to the rest of our food, the grains, vegetables and fruits, there seems to be a common idea that these are basically wild plants. Ideas like the ‘paleo’ diet promote the idea that if you stick to wholegrains, vegetables and fruit you are eating like our stone-age ancestors. Stories of characters like Johnny Appleseed creating forests of heavy-laden trees simply by scattering seeds encourage this idea, and so do ideas of eating naturally, or the superiority of vegetables over meat because it’s ‘more natural’, further encourage it. The oft-told repeated image of ranchers as wild and free, roaming with their herds, while the farmer is tied to his land like a ‘peasant’, further diminishes this side of our diet
In truth, though, nothing could be farther from the truth. The story of the human domestication of plants is rarely told, yet it has unfolded over thousands of years, and has been at least as important in creating our societies as the domestication of animals. So when you are cruising through the produce aisles at the supermarket, harvesting what might seem like the bounty of nature, consider how man-made almost every one of those items is, right down to those orange carrots and the very flour of the loaf you just picked up.
The Humble Carrot
Speaking of carrots, that orange carrot we take for granted is a perfect example of how many of our vegetables and fruits came about. Wild carrots, which we know as “Queen Anne’s Lace” are plants of fields across Europe and the Middle East, but they have thin, white roots. It’s very unlikely they were eaten by the ancient Greeks or Romans, but the seeds may have been used medicinally for thousands of years. The first colored carrots seem to have been found in the Middle East. A book from the 12th century, written in Spain when controlled by the Moors (Arabs) speaks of a purple variety and a yellow one being grown by the Nabatheans, a people living on the fringes of today’s Gulf States. Such a purple carrot is still found in Egypt, distinct from the much more recent purple and yellow varieties that appear in our stores. This ‘purple’ is often called ‘red’, but that color was not, in those days, the bright reds we think of today – more a brownish purple.
At first the purple carrot was popular across Europe, but the yellow form eventually became the favorite. Improved, more edible varieties of the wild white carrot seem to have been grown in France.
The modern orange carrot, though, arrived much later, and isn’t mentioned before 1700. It developed in the Netherlands, probably as a cross between the yellow carrot and a variety that was not good to eat but had bright orange-red roots. So those tasty carrots we probably eat every day have only been around for less than 400 years, and it’s thanks to our ancestors, not Mother Nature, that we have them.
The Domestication of Cereals
The story of how we got the grains for our daily bread, like wheat, is a complex one, but without wishing to offend anyone, it wasn’t a gift from God. It was around 10,000 years ago that a group of subsistence farmers in Anatolia, Turkey, found a patch of wild wheat that was like no-other. The grains were larger, containing more starch, and they separated into individual grains when threshed, making them easier to harvest and process. Genetically they had extra sets of chromosomes, which made them larger and tougher. These special seeds spread from village to village, the best being selected, so that plants became better and better. The acre after acre that spread across central North America today can be traced back to those generations of poor ‘peasants’ whose skill, knowledge and determination to survive gave us this gift.
As for corn, those juicy cobs all came from a wild plant called Teosinte. We know from genetic research that around the same time as wheat was being domesticated, farmers in Mexico found a unique variation of Teosinte,. That plant, called today Zea diploperennis, is a bushy plant with small seed heads. The new discovery had only 5 genes different from the wild plant, but it gave it large, starch-rich grains in a compact head. All early forms of corn across the Americas seem to have come from those original plants. Look at how different these plants are, and think about roasting a Teosinte on the barbecue. . .
3-bean Salad, Anyone?
Those plump garbanzo beans or chickpeas began as a special plant in Afghanistan, which arrived in India only in the 18th century. Larger, smoother, and lighter in color than other existing variations of the wild chickpea, they spread into Europe probably via the Portuguese, who had trading stations in India. Both the green beans and the red kidney beans in your salad are forms of the same plant, Phaseolus vulgaris, the common bean. Developed into many variations, with red and white beans from the dried pods, and varieties of green beans – the unripe pods – the original plants were wild in Central and South America, and again around 9,000 years ago they began to be selected and developed into more nutritious and larger forms. After Columbus they were brought to Europe, where further varieties were developed. So your chances of making this salad by collecting wild plants is basically zero.
When it comes to fruit, one of the most popular everywhere is the banana. Just as well, then, that around 7,000 years ago, on the remote island of Papua New Guinea, someone found a banana with fewer seeds than are found in the unattractive, seed-filled fruit of the wild banana. Over time the fruit became completely seedless, so it is only through human cultivation that this plant survives at all, being spread by dividing the rapid-growing clumps into new young plants.
Today there are three distinct groups of bananas, probably developed independently. Africans developed both the Plantains, high in starch and low in sugar, and the Highland banana, a cooking type. Our dessert bananas come from the New Guinea domestication event. So hack your way through all the jungle you want, you want find any bananas you will want to eat growing along your way.
Apples and Oranges
The story of oranges is complex, and shrouded in more questions than answers. There are three foundation species, all of them bitter, and citrus trees were first grown for their fragrant blooms and attractive, if inedible, fruits. They are the pomelo (Citrus maxima), the mandarin (C. reticulata) and the citron (C. medica). The sweet orange is a hybrid that may have first occurred in China, while the lemon likely appear quite recently on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. All the basic varieties only became available around 3,000 years ago.
As for the apple, it’s an interesting and different matter. As you may or may not know, there is little point in sowing the seeds of a juicy apple and hoping to one day have a valuable fruit tree. Unlike those cereals and beans, the genetics of good fruit on apples, (and other fruit trees), is not fixed and they don’t come ‘true’ from seed. Seedlings typically return in part to their wilder ancestors, which were the crabapples.
The only wild larger apples, about 3 inches across, grow wild on trees in the Tian Shan mountains, in what is today Kazakhstan . From them, and by crossing them with other crabapple species, and then selecting rare, unique seedlings, humans quickly developed better varieties. Since they can’t be grown from seed, they had to be preserved by grafting stems onto seedlings.
It’s worth considering that the apple benefits too. Already evolved to have its fruits eaten to spread its seeds, now it had a willing human assistant who was prepared to protect it and carry it into new areas where it could grow. Today it is estimated that there are around 37 billion apples trees, in over 7,000 varieties, growing across the planet. It’s something wild apples could only dream of, without the assistance of humans.
Time to Head to the Grocery Store
This story of human intervention can be told for just about every vegetable or fruit, with the exception of some herbs, that ends up on our plates. So next time you are out shopping in the produce section, spare a moment to consider the work of our ancestors in making it all possible. Sure, they had raw materials from Mother Nature, but it was Mother and Father Farmer that made today’s selection possible.