Our Vegetables’ Ancestors Were Also Foreigners

This article by Dr. William M. Johnson
Galveston County Extension Agent and Master Gardener Coordinator
appeared in the March 1999 Master Gardener Network Newsletter.

orth Americans, and most of the vegetables they eat, have one thing in common -- most of their ancestors were foreigners. Even the name by which vegetables are identified on the market -- ‘truck crops’ -- is foreign, and has nothing to do with transportation.

Only nine of the nearly fifty vegetables which have become common to the American table are natives of the Americans, and they (corn, white potato, sweet potato, lima bean, common bean, tomato, squash, summer squash, and pepper) all originated in Central and northern parts of South America. Those requiring colder climates, like the white potato, originated in the Andes mountains, while the sweet potato developed in hot, moist climates at sea level.

The list of vegetables that North Americans have adopted is long (numbering at least thirty-eight), but their everyday names conceal the faraway places of their origin: the eggplant and cucumber come from India; spinach and muskmelons from Persia; watermelon from Africa, which also sent okra; radishes and Chinese cabbage from China; asparagus, kale, and collards from the lands of the Mediterranean, which also sent us cabbage; garden peas from Asia; and kohlrabi and Brussels sprouts from northern Europe. Other ‘foreigners’ now in our diet are broccoli, cauliflower, artichoke, beet, rhubarb, parsnip, salsify, celery, parsley, leek, Swiss chard, turnip, rutabaga, cowpeas, Indian mustard, Chinese mustard, lettuce, carrot, onion, garlic, and chive.

‘Truck crops’ is the commonly heard expression to cover all vegetables, but it has no connection with the fact that a good many of them are hauled to market on trucks. An old meaning of the word ‘truck’ (derived from the French word troquer) is ‘to barter or exchange’. The word developed a special meaning as a synonym for vegetables in general because of the practice of bartering or dealing in small lots of them in the marketplace.

The growing, marketing, and consumption of vegetables in the United States today has come a long way since small lots were bartered. The field-to-table story of today’s vegetables is a story of big business, and it is sometimes because of the needs of commerce that a fruit is a vegetable, or a vegetable is treated as a fruit.

The tomato is an example. Botanically speaking, the tomato is a fruit, but legally speaking, it is a vegetable; the Supreme Court of the United States said so in 1893. An importer had argued that tomatoes were fruit and, therefore, not subject to a duty in effect at that time. The Court held that the tomato is a vegetable because it was usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, or with fish or meats that constitute the main part of a meal. This is less true now than it was then, for today, a much larger part of our tomato crop is made into juice; however, the tomato remains, legally, a vegetable. Botanically speaking, snap or green beans, the pods of peas, the garden pepper, the okra pod, and many others, are also fruits. But no one doubts that they are vegetables. The cucumber and muskmelon are closely-related fruits; both are the genus Cucumis. They are similar in habits of growth and in structure, both are grown by truck farms using similar methods, they move through the same channels of trade, and both are eaten raw. Yet we always think of cucumbers as vegetables and of muskmelons as fruit.

While it is custom which seems to dictate which plants are treated as vegetables and which as fruit, regardless of how they may be classified, they all taste great when grown in, and harvested fresh from, the home garden!

This article by Dr. Jerry Parsons originally appeared in PLANTanswers at the aggie-horticulture web site.

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