Introduction to Vegetables

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This is an edited article originally by Victor R. Boswell

Americans have become great vegetable eaters. We eat more "store vegetables" than ever, and the growing of vegetables in home and community gardens has become more extensive than at any time in our history except during periods of national emergency.

We like our vegetables fresh from the garden; we like many of them raw; and we want them the year round. Our use of fresh, canned, and frozen vegetables-except potatoes and sweet potatoes-has increased, per person, steadily for 25 years and more, while our use of potatoes and grains has steadily decreased.

"Truck crops" we call our vegetables. The expression has no connection with the fact that they are commonly hauled to market in motor trucks (formerly in wagons or carts), but it reveals an interesting bit of history about the early vegetable business.

One old meaning of the word "truck," derived from the French word troquer, is "to barter or exchange." In the United States 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 market. Vegetable growing in America today has come far from the days of small items that were commonly bartered; it has become big business. The truck gardeners who worked small areas near towns and cities are being displaced by truck farmers who grow huge fields of vegetables farther and farther away from the centers where they will be used.

What is a vegetable, exactly? What is the difference between a fruit and a vegetable? Is a tomato a fruit or is it a vegetable?

These questions are asked many times in our work, not only from curiosity but often for business reasons.

We can give some very confusing answers because there are no definitions that will hold without qualifications or exceptions.

In 1893 the Supreme Court of the United States rendered a decision to the effect that the tomato is a vegetable! An importer had argued that tomatoes were fruit and hence, at that time, not subject to duty. The court held the tomato to be 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 the meal. In the last few years in the United States a much larger part of our tomato crop has been canned in the form of juice than as whole tomatoes. Apparently we now drink a major proportion of our tomatoes before the main part of any meal, as we drink a large share of our crops of oranges and grapefruit. Many tomatoes today are also made into preserves with sugar, or eaten raw, like fruits. Still, the tomato is "legally" a vegetable.

Of course all botanists know that by botanical definition the tomato is a fruit. They also know that the snap or green bean, the pod of peas, the garden pepper, the okra pod to name a few-also are fruits, botanically. Still, no one doubts that they are vegetables.

Muskmelons and watermelons, too, botanically are fruits; they meet the Supreme Court’s implied definition of fruits, and still they are grown by truck farmers, and agricultural students in America study melons in courses on vegetable culture.

The cucumber and the muskmelon are rather closely related; they belong to the same genus, Cucumis. They are similar in habits of growth and in structure; both are grown by truck farmers by similar methods, and both move through the same channels of trade. The fruits of both are eaten raw.

Yet we say that cucumbers are vegetables and that muskmelons definitely are fruits! Thus it is evident that there is no clearcut distinction be plants called vegetables and those called fruits. Specific plants are arbitrarily placed in one of these two categories as a matter of custom. Here we shall be consistent with the inconsistencies of our American language and customs, and deal with melons along with other truck crops. Melons are truck crops, yet they are fruits.

Generally speaking, however, we classify as vegetables those annual plants of which the immature succulent roots, bulbs, stems, blossoms, leaves, seeds, or fruits are eaten; also those perennial nonwoody plants of which the roots, stems, leaf stalks, or leaves are eaten.

Scientific Detectives Trace Plants’ Origin

The ways archeologists, historians, geographers, botanists, and others have tried for centuries to find out where our vegetables came from makes an interesting story in itself. Shrewd scientific detectives are still at the job, trying to fill the gaps in our knowledge and to define with ever-increasing exactness where this or that species originated.

Nowadays these investigators are driven on by a practical purpose. If we know the origin of a plant, we know where to look for different forms having characteristics that might be valuable in present-day crop breeding.

Plant-hunting expeditions are sent to the supposed region of origin of a species in the hope of finding cultivated or wild forms, or even closely related species, that may help improve our crops. The early students of plant origins had only folk tales, sketchy records of travelers, and old writings to help them. Such sources gave a few valuable clues, but most vegetables came into use as food long before there were any known written records.

As prehistoric peoples moved about, even from one continent to another over land bridges or short stretches of water, they sometimes carried with them seeds of plants they had learned to use for food. By the time the oldest known records were written or carved, many plants were known over relatively vast stretches of the earth, particularly in Eurasia and parts of Africa.

This wide scattering of vegetable plants at the very dawn of history complicates the task of determining the exact region where they were first used as food.

Because some vegetable has been known from the beginnings of history in widely separated lands, the people in each of those lands believed the plant to have been there "always," to have originated there. Modern research has shown many of those beliefs to be wrong. Exploration and archeological search have uncovered many new clues.

One of the best evidences of origin of a cultivated plant is finding the place where its ancestral form is still growing in the wild. But finding wild forms as weeds in a particular place, or finding cultivated plants that have escaped into the wild, proves nothing about their origin. Wild carrot grows over much of the United States, but it is not native here.

Botanists now rather generally accept the theory that the region having the greatest diversity of forms of a given kind of plant is the probable center of origin of that plant.

Of many important crops, however, no one has ever been able to find a wild form anywhere in the world. Maize (Americans call it "corn") is an important example. Either its wild parent has vanished from the earth or it has become isolated in some areas of the South American lowlands where literate man has never penetrated.

Number of Tribal Names Gives Clue

Plant names help the plant historian. Finding numerous names for a single plant among widely scattered tribes in a primitive country indicates antiquity of the plant in that area. If there is no such multiplicity of names in languages of other lands, the plant is suspected of being native to the land where it has many.

When the white man first came, he found our present common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) widely scattered in North, Central, and South America, with each tribe that grew it having its own name for the bean.

For example, it was called sahe or sahu by the Indians on the St. Lawrence River; ogaressa by the Hurons; tuppuhguam-ash by the northern Algonquins; malachxil by the Delawares; okindgier by Indians on the Roanoke River; ayacotle and etl by the Aztecs.

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