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                                                                  HISTORY OF FOOD PLANTS



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Overview, Origin and Distribution, Nature of Food Plants, Lower Plants as Sources of Food    Fungi

       Mushrooms   Misc. Fungi     Truffles    Agar   Algae    Dulse    Irish Moss    Misc. Algae   



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          It is remarkable that most food plants in use in the world today, as well as industrial plants, are of great antiquity.  Most of our food plants were domesticated from wild ancestors long before the beginning of recorded history.  All available records indicate that they were as familiar to the peoples of the ancient world as they are to us.  Comparatively few new plants have been developed during the past 2,000 years, although the older ones have been greatly altered and improved in response to increasing complexity of the human existence.


          There have been many attempts to determine the age of our food plants and their place of origin as well as their cultural history.  The classic work dealing with this phase of botany is De Candolle’s “L’origine des plantes cultiveés,” appearing in 1883.  This was a very careful piece of work of great accuracy.  Only a few of his conclusions regarding geographic distribution have had to be altered in light of more recent studies.  De Candolle based his conclusions on a variety of evidence, such as the works of Dioscorides, Theophrastus and other old historians; Chinese writings; archeological and ethnological data such as the monuments in Egypt, the ruins in Pompeii and the remains of Lake Dwellers of Europe and the Inca ruins of South America.  He also learned from philological indications involving the names of plants in Hebrew, Sanskrit and other ancient languages.  His botanical conclusions were based on distribution, number of varieties, presence or absence of wild types, length of cultivation and similar matters.  He arranged the useful plants in six classes.  Hill (1952) gave a few examples of each of these groups as follows:


A.  Old World Species Cultivated For Over 4,000 Years

       almond, apple, apricot, banana, barley, broad beans, cabbage, cucumber, date, eggplant, fig, flax, grape,

            hemp, mango, millet,  mulberry, olive, onion, peach, pear, quince, rice, sorghum, soybean, tea, turnip,

            watermelon, wheat


B.  Old World Species Cultivated For Over 2,000 Years and Perhaps Longer

       asparagus, beet, breaffruit, carrot, celery, cherry, chestnut, cotton, garden pea, pummulo, lemon, lettuce,

             lime, mustard, nutmeg, oats, orange, pepper, plum, poppy, radish, rye, sugar cane, walnut, yam


C.  Old World Species Cultivated Probably For Less Than 2,000 Years

        artichoke, buckwheat, coffee, currant, endive, gooseberry, horseradish, muskmelon, okra, parsley,

             parsnip, raspberry, rhubarb, strawberry


D.  New World Species of Ancient Cultivation, More Than 2,000 Years [Also see ethnic.6]

        cacao, kidney bean, maize, maté, sweet potato, tobacco4


E.  New World Species Cultivated Before The Time of Columbus

        avocado, cotton, guava, maize, sunchoke, peanut, pineapple, potato, pumpkin, quinoa, red pepper, squash,

             tomato, vanilla


F.  New World Species Cultivated Since The Time of Columbus

        allspice, blackberry, black walnut, blueberry, cinchona, cranberry, dewberry, gooseberry, pecan,

             persimmon, plum rubber, strawberry


          The above examples show that our most valuable economic plants, including the cereals, most of the vegetables and fruits, tea, coffee, cocoa and the fiber plants, were discovered, utilized and cultivated by humans thousands and thousands of years ago.  The Olmec of southern Mexico who most certainly were involved with the development of large ears of maize, even went to the extreme to emphasize their dependence on this crop.  From infancy they forced the growth of human heads to a shape resembling an ear of maize.  Satellite imagy and racial resemblance points to the Olmec origin from West Africa in very ancient times.


          It has been difficult to accurately determine the native homes of our cultivated plants.  Obviously they must have been derived at some time in the remote past from wild ancestors that originally had a restricted distribution.  In most cases these wild forms no longer exist, or humans far from their original home have transported them.


          Another important study, which illuminates the points of origin of cultivated plants, is that of Vavilov.  It appeared in 1926.  His conclusions were based on a variety of facts obtained from different sources.  He considered such things as anatomy, genetics, cytology, distribution and diseases of the plants concerned.  A valuable conclusion in Vavilov’s work is that many of our cultivated species of first rank, the primary crops as he called the, had a diversified rather than a single origin.  In the case of wheat, for example, Vavilov pointed out that there were at least two distinct centers of distribution.  The soft wheats came from Southwestern Asia, while the hard wheats originated in the Mediterranean region.  Similarly barley was derived from Southwestern Asia, North Africa and Southeastern Asia.


          Regarding the so-called secondary crop plants, Vavilov contended that these were originally weed companions of the primary crops.  These weeds could not be eliminated and were either ignored or tolerated by the farmers.  In regions that were favorable for the primary crops the weeds were of little importance.  However, in unfavorable areas the weeds tended to become more and more prominent and gradually replaced the primary crop eventually to become established as a cultivated crop.  Rye and oats are conspicuous examples of such plants.


          Finally Vavilov concluded that the great centers of distribution of our cultivated crops were always in mountainous regions, and that the greatest amount of diversity occurred in such areas.  He generally recognized the four centers of distribution with the addition of a fifth area in Abyssinia and adjacent parts of Northern Africa.  He also suggested the possibility of a sixth center in the Philippines where rice and coix may have originated.


Origin and Distribution


          There appear to be four major centers in the world from which our economic plants originated and from where they were gradually dispersed.  These are (1) Central or Southwestern Asia and the mountainous region from India to Asia Minor and Tran Caucasus; (2) the Mediterranean region; (3) Southeastern Asia; and (4) the highlands of the Neotropics.


          From earliest times humans had at their disposal various food plants on which they must have been dependent to a great extent for their existence.  Early humans wandered from place to place being content to gather the edible fruits, grains, seeds and tubers when they were needed and to possibly to temporarily store them in small amounts.  Primitive attempts at cultivation gradually progressed to sowing seeds in some favorable location.  Whether these first attempts at agriculture were accidental or purposeful, they were of great importance for they changed the nature of human existence.  Necessity caused humans to reduce their nomadic existence and to remain in one place at least long enough to harvest the crops.  In this way the first step was taken toward civilization because agriculture is the only mode of existence that has enabled us to live together in communities and to accumulate the necessities of life.  Agriculture was of the utmost importance and probably represents the most significant single advance in the human development.


          Simple type of plant culture was gradually replaced with greater sophistication that led finally to the building of the great nations of antiquity.  These ancient civilizations were restricted in area for they developed only in those regions where the useful plants were native.  Therefore Asia Minor and adjacent areas in Southwestern Asia, the Mediterranean region, Southeastern Asia and the Neotropical American highlands were the locations of the older civilizations.  The presence of valuable agricultural plants in all these regions was the most important factor in the development of agriculture, although in all of these areas climate and soil conditions also were very favorable.  The climate was equable, with little extremes of heat and cold; the soil was fertile; and there was either ample rainfall or irrigation possible.


          In Central Asia the principal native agricultural plants included alfalfa, apple, barley, broad bean, buckwheat, cherry, flax, garden peas, garlic, hemp, lentil, mulberry, olive, onion, pomegranate, plum, quince, radish, rye and spinach.


          The Mediterranean region had the artichoke, asparagus, cabbage, cauliflower, cotton, fig, horseradish, millet, parsnip, parsley and rhubarb.  Common to both of these areas were the almond, carrot, carob, celery, chestnut, grape, lettuce, mustard, turnip and walnut.  Wheat is also a native of some part of this combined region.  Whether it was indigenous to Syria and Palestine, to Turkestan or Mesopotamia, or perhaps had a multiple origin, it was available throughout the region from very early times.


          In Southeastern Asia the banana, breadfruit, millet, peach, persimmon, orange, rice, soybean, sugar cane and yam were native; in the Neotropics cacao, American cotton, kidney and lima beans, maize, potato, squash, tobacco and tomato were indigenous.


          Of interest is the presence of at least one cereal in all of these four cultural areas.  Ancient agriculture was based principally on these cereals, as is true today.  Their highly nutritious seeds were the staff of life 5-10, 000 years ago, and have remained so to present times.  It was the cultivation of wheat in the fertile valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that made possible the great nations of Biblical time:  Chaldea, Babylonia and Assyria.  Egypt, Greece and Rome had both wheat and barley at hand.  Rice was the basis of the restricted civilization that developed in the valley of the Hwang Ho and Yangtze Kiang rivers and led to the development of the Chinese empire.  Maize was cultivated in the highlands of the Neotropics.  There is a great similarity in the history of agriculture in all these areas.  First the gathering the edible portions of wild plants followed by the primitive cultivation of certain species best adapted to the human need; and finally the evolution of a high-grade agriculture that involved the breeding of new varieties, improvements inn cultivation, irrigation and other aspects of agriculture.  This similarity between the Old and the New World has caused some speculation that the American civilization must have had some contact with those of the Old World and been influenced by them.  However, the present opinion suggests that agriculture in America has had an entirely separate development and that any resemblance with Old World techniques is purely coincidental.


Nature of Food Plants


          The various materials that make up the food of plants and animals are used either in the formation of the living protoplasm, the building up of their bodily structure or as a source of energy.  Humans and other animals are not able to manufacture their own food, as are plants.  Therefore, they must obtain their food readymade and so are dependent, either directly or indirectly, on plants.  Plants manufacture much more food than they can utilize immediately and they store up this surplus as a reserve supply for future use.  It is this supply of reserves that is used by animals.  The essential foods produced by plants are carbohydrates, fats and proteins, each being of value in its own way to animal metabolism.  There are also mineral salts, organic acids, vitamins and enzymes that are required for general health.  It is thus possible for us to live entirely on a vegetarian diet.


          Plants store food in various ways, either in roots, stems, leaves, fruits or seeds.  The most important of these for humans are fruits and seeds.  In this category are found the cereals and small grains, the legumes and the nuts.  All contain large amounts of nutritive material and have proportionately low water content, which enhances their value for they can be stored and transported with ease.  Roots, tubers, bulbs and other vegetables from the soil are next in importance as sources of our food and the lower animals as well.  Their value is less because they contain much water.  The leafy parts of plants, the greens, salad plants and other herbage vegetables, contain comparatively little stored food.  But they are necessary because of the vitamins and mineral salts they contain and the mechanical effect of their indigestible cellulose.  This is true also of the fleshy fruits that may also contain various organic acids.  The following categories will be treated separately:  cereals, small grains, legumes, nuts, earth vegetables, herbage vegetables, fruit vegetables and fleshy fruits.


          There are hundreds of species of plants, both wild and cultivated, that are used only by primitive peoples or in restricted areas of the world.  Thus a detailed discussion will be on those food plants used by the majority of peoples of the world.


Lower Plants as Food Sources




          Mushrooms, truffles and other fungi have been used as food in ancient times.  Records exist from 500 B.C.  Mushrooms were well known to the Greeks and were items of delicacy by the Romans.  During the Middle Ages the consumption of edible fungi soared.  Today they are consumed by both primitive and civilized cultures.  Wild fungi are consumed everywhere and cultivation is carried out in Europe, North America and the Orient.




          These occur naturally in woods, fields and pastures.  They are the reproductive stage of certain of the higher fungi.  The vegetative stage consists of masses of fine threads, or hyphae, that constitute the mycelium.  The mycelium extends in all directions through the soil and derives its nourishment saprophytically from decaying organic matter.  Usually under favorable environmental conditions the visible spore-bearing stage appears above the ground.


          There are many different kinds of edible wild mushrooms.  They are more delicate in flavor and more palatable than the cultivated varieties.  But great caution is required in distinguishing edible mushrooms from poisonous ones, the latter being known as toadstools.  There is no definite rule that would absolutely separate the two groups. Because of this it is wise not to harvest any mushroom that resembles a poisonous form.  The Boletaceae is a mushroom family of pore fungi that have very few poisonous species and are relatively safe to harvest.  Their flavor is not as good as the Agaricaceae, or gill fungi, but it can be greatly enhanced by drying.  The “boletes” are very common in conifer forests.


Cultivation of Mushrooms


          In the 17th Century mushrooms began to be cultivated.  Although many species have come under cultivation since, the common meadow mushroom, Agaricus campestris, is the most common.  Propagation can be either by spores or mycelium, called spawn.  It is essential to maintain an optimum environment during this process.  Little or no light, plenty of moisture and a constant temperature of 55-58 deg. Fahrenheit are optimum.  The soil needs to be rich in organic matter so bovine manure is an excellent medium.  Environments in caves, cellars and tunnels are perfect for growing mushrooms.


          The spores germinate or the mycelium resumes its growth ramifying through the soil and in about six weeks little buttons appear on the surface of the soil.  These enlarge to form a chamber in which the gills develop.  The chamber is raised up on a short fleshy stalk and finally opens out into the characteristic umbrella shape pileus with the gills on the underside.  Commercial mushrooms are usually gathered in the button stage or before they are fully mature.  The mycelium continues to bear from 6-8 months.


          Mushrooms do not possess much food value because nearly 91 percent of the flesh is water.  Proteins make up about 3.75 percent, carbohydrates 3.50 and fats only 0.20 percent.




          Truffles are great delicacies and avidly sought after in the wild.  They differ from most other fungi by producing their fruiting bodies underground.  They are solid, with a firm black or grayish-brown flesh and an agreeable odor and taste.  Truffles are most common in England and on the European Continent.  The principal commercial area is in southern France.  Truffles prefer a light, porous limestone soil in oak, beech or birch forests.  They are usually collected in the wild state, although crude attempts at cultivations have been made.  These involve mostly stimulating natural production in favorable areas.  Harvest is with the aid of specially trained pigs or dogs whose keen sense of smell enables them to locate the fungi.  Truffles are collected when they are mature.  Several main species that are utilized are Tuber melanosoporum, T. aestivum and T. brumale.


Misc. Fungi


          The morel, Morechella esculenta, is a not too common wild edible fungus in the United States, usually found in maple forests.  This species and several related ones have been grown in France and elsewhere in Europe.  In Japan there are several native species cultivated, chiefly the shitake, Cartinellus edodes.  This aromatic species is grown on logs and can be stored for a long time in the dried state.  By 1952 over one thousand tons were grown annually in Japan.  By 2003 there has been a great increase in the culture of several species of mushroom in Europe and North America as the demand increased.




          There have been only a few species of algae utilized in Europe and America for food, as the demand has been low.  However, in Japan, China and the Pacific Islands algae have constituted one of the main articles of diet.  In Japan the demand is so great that many species are cultivated.  Sometimes seven different kinds are served at a single meal.  Over 70 varieties are consumed in Hawaii and a few of these are cultivated.  The nutritive value of algae is high.  There is a carbohydrate content of about 50 percent, with small amounts of proteins and fats.  Additionally they are rich in vitamins and also possess a greater variety of mineral salts than any other foods.  Three species that have been of importance in the United States are Irish moss, dulse and agar.


Irish Moss


          Chondrus crispus is a perennial alga found from Maine to North Carolina.  The fresh plant is greenish purple in color with densely tufted fronds from 2-10 in. in length.  These are narrow and cylindrical at the base but later become flattened and repeatedly forked.  Because Irish Moss is common in New England a commercial effort was launched in eastern Massachusetts.  The plants are gathered with iron rakes at ebb tide and are then spread out on the beach to dry and bleach.  Later they are soaked in salt water and again bleached.  This process is repeated 4-5 times.  The final commercial product is yellowish white and has a hard, horny consistency.  Irish moss has high mucilage content and is used chiefly in making farinas, blancmanges and other deserts.  The colloidal material, carrageenin, is extracted and purified.  It is an excellent emulsifying and suspending agent that is used in the baking and dairy industries and in an array of other products ranging from hand lotions and tooth paste to beer.  This species also grows on the Atlantic Coast of Europe and is a favorite food in the west of Ireland.


Dulse (Sea Kale)


          Rhodymenia palmata, or sea kale, is a red alga found on rocky shores of the North Atlantic.  It is frequently dried and used for food.




          Agar is a favored food in China and Japan where it is used in soups, sauces, jellies, etc.  In the United States and Europe it is used by bakers and in making ice cream, candy, mayonnaise, cheese, jellies and other desserts.  It has also been used in clarifying liquors, canning fish and other industrial purposes.


Misc. Algae


          Several other species of algae that are used in Iceland, Ireland and Scotland for food include the green laver, Ulea lactuca, murline, Alaria esculenta, and pink lver, Porphyra lacinata.


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