Nowadays, many people like to know where their fruits and veggies came from - whether that's an organic farm across the country or an orchard a few miles away. But how many of us actually think about where our produce came from? As in, how it originated as food?
Most of us might assume that because they come from plants, the veggies and fruits we're accustomed to have always been around. But that isn't always the case. In fact, much of our favorite fresh produce was created by humans utilizing the slow process of selective breeding (choosing particular characteristics to further breed for).
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Bitter and poisonous - not words you typically associate with the humble almond. But back in the day, that's exactly what wild almonds were. In fact, eating fewer than 50 wild, bitter almonds could prove fatal to an adult due to the presence of hydrocyanic acid, a natural form of cyanide.
So how did the almond go from a distasteful, toxic nut to the second-most popular nut in the world? It's not exactly clear. However, a passage from St. Basil's Hexaemeron, a fourth-century Christian text, gives insight into what our ancestors did with almond trees. As quoted from NPR:
Pierce an almond tree in the trunk near its roots, stick a "fat plug of pine" into its center - and its almond seeds will undergo a remarkable change.
Thus the... bitter almonds... lose the acidity of their juice, and become delicious fruits.
And it turns out, this isn't just mumbo jumbo - scientists theorize that jamming the pine wood into the tree may have stressed it so much that it stopped its toxin production. These days, however, we consume the fruit of the sweet almond tree; its nuts have been selectively bred to contain almost no cyanide - certainly not even close to a dangerous amount.
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Broccoli, Cauliflower, Kale, Cabbage, Brussels Sprouts
Children across the world may be devasted to learn that broccoli was, in fact, mankind's invention. But it wasn't just broccoli: Cauliflower, kale, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts all come from the same plant - a cruciferous vegetable in the Brassicaceae family.
What is this wondrous, amazing mother foliage? It's the simple wild mustard plant. But this simple plant evolved splendidly with selective breeding. Starting more than 2,000 years ago, farmers painstakingly chose different combinations to try out. They reproduced the plants with the biggest leaves (creating kale). They created plants with larger flower clusters, which they harvested before they bloomed (broccoli). From broccoli came cauliflower. And from cabbage came Brussels sprouts.
So, the next time you enjoy some of your favorite cruciferous veggies, remember to thank the wild mustard plant.
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Do you know the significance of peaches in Chinese culture? A peach tree symbolizes longevity and good fortune in Chinese mythology. This may be why peaches are one of the oldest domesticated fruits - with documentation of their cultivation going back approximately 2,500 years.
Wild peaches were originally small, sour fruits, with the stone comprising more than 35% of the total fruit. Today's peaches are much larger and sweeter, with the stone taking up only 10% of the succulent, fuzzy fruit.
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Boysenberry sounds human-made, doesn't it? That might be because it was literally named after its human creator, Rudolph Boysen.
The horticulturist liked to experiment with crossbreeding on his Anaheim, CA, farm in the 1920s. When he tried his hand at creating a hybrid of blackberries, raspberries, and loganberries, the plants ended up producing large, flavorful berries, but Boysen was preoccupied with selling his farm and neglected them.
This might have been the end of the boysenberry had a fellow farmer not contacted the US Department of Agriculture, which was very impressed by this new variety of berry. Agricultural agents - together with Boysen's farmer friend Walter Knott (of Knott's Berry Farm fame) - revived the neglected plants and propagated them to the point of being able to introduce boysenberries to the market in 1935.
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The grapefruit can likely thank its existence to laziness.
Millions of years ago, the original citrus plant reportedly separated into the “Big Three” parent citrus plants of the world: citron, pomelo, and mandarin [ you can see a citron here.] Most resided in Asia; however, in the 1600s, Europeans got their hands on citrus trees and started planting them all around the West Indies.
While care typically went into keeping the plants from crossbreeding (to avoid inbreeding and fruitless plants), in Barbados, people didn't seem to care. Citrus hybridizes with relative ease and, lo and behold: In the mid-1600s, the “forbidden fruit” was born - an old Barbadian nickname for the grapefruit.
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Name an orange vegetable.
Chances are, you probably said carrot. (Not only because there's a photo of one right here.) A carrot's color is an integral part of its identity. Yet before humans got involved, carrots weren't orange at all.
The wild carrot plant actually had white roots. Then, as people began domesticating it around the year 900, the taproots took on purple or yellow hues. The famous orange carrot that we love today wasn't seen until the 15th century. (This means the other-colored carrots you see at farmers' markets are actually very old, rather than new!)