A Brief History of Vegetables

When bobbing round the aisles of the local supermarket you probably have very little time to consider how modern homo lazybones has arrived at the neatly shrink-wrapped or frozen vegetables popped so easily into that shopping trolley groaning with excess. Well, many of our vegetables have a long history of development to provide the tasty morcels for your kitchen...

Not so commonly used these days, the tuberous roots of the hardy Jerusalem Artichoke have been used for centuries and were well-known to Amer-Indians by the time Westerners explored the New World. "Neither came it from Jerusalem or out of Asia but out of America," Gerard said in 1596, while its large yellow blossom which is similar to the Sunflower Artichoke - Girasole Articiocco in Italian - is thought to be the origin of the name corruption.

The roots can over-winter in the ground and hence it was once a valuable vegetable for springtime. Sometimes pickled or used in salads, the boiled roots were often mashed with butter or added to pies.

Faba vulgaris is perhaps the best known cultivated bean, though there are many varieties and the seeds have been used for food throughout the ages. Possibly originating in Asia or North Africa, the bean has been grown since prehistory. Bronze Age Italians and Swiss grew the plant, the Greeks knew it and there is mention of beans in The Ilyiad [apparently there were traces of beans found during the excavations of Troy]. The ancient Egyptians cultivated beans, the Romans used them ceremonially and Pliny mentions them in his writings too. Eventually they were introduced into China, Japan and India.

The climbing Common Haricot [Phaseolus vulgaris] is thought to have originated in South America and was introduced - like the potato - to Europe during the 16th century, there being no reference to the plant during Roman times [Cato does not mention it] or in ancient Greece. There appear to be no traces of the haricot in early European pre-history, yet there are traces of haricot beans in very old Peruvian burial sites.

In a history of vegetables one can hardly miss out the Soy Bean, although yellow or black soy beans are not readily consumed in Britain as a vegetable in their own right, but rather used as a constituent of other foodstuffs. Soy has been cultivated in China since ancient times and is possibly mentioned in the writings of Confucius. In the late 19th century soy was introduced as a forage crop into Europe and North America, yet in places like Japan and China the beans are used in cooking very much like any other bean.

Edible beets come in a variety of forms: white beet [B. alba]; sugar-beet [B. altissima], red beet [B. vulgaris], and the mangold-wurtzel [B. maritima].

Although beets can be found in the wild they are one of the core human crops which has been cultivated successfully for absolutely ages. The ancient Greeks and Romans were well up on the species with distinct root varieties named by Pliny and Aristotle, and we know that beet was grown in 12th century Britain. In the late 16th century there is a reference to 'sugar' in beet and by the mid 1700s this was identified as a potential source for commercial sugar production. It was trade embargoes during the Napoleonic era that finally triggered French commercialisation of the beet-to-sugar process.

If you are interested in edible wild plants and their possible uses [many were used in old times as crops], take a look at the Wild Food School microsite [opens in a new window].


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