Man-made fruits and vegetables
It turns out humans have been tinkering with the genetics of our food for thousands of years. Thanks to a process known as selective breeding, whereby farmers select and grow crops with favorable traits, we now have a variety of juicy fruits and vegetables.
Over thousands of years, some of the food we use every day has evolved from inedible ornamental plants to palatable and healthy goodies. As a matter of fact, if it weren’t for selective breeding, you would have pea-sized yellow tomatoes instead of big, red juicy ones.
Here are some fruits and vegetables that never actually existed in nature.
The sweet complement to your peanut butter sandwich is a human invention. The modern banana is a hybrid of two wild species: Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana. Musa acuminata is fleshy inside, but its taste is very unpleasant, whereas Musa balbisiana has a pleasant taste but contains too many seeds.
Natural crossbreeding between the two species occurred in South Asian forests, resulting in the ancestor of the modern banana. Early humans discovered they could replant the shoots of the hybrid to create new trees and used the process of selective breeding to get the perfect potassium-rich fruit we all know and love today. To this day, bananas are replanted from the shoot of another tree. Unfortunately, the lack of seeds means a single disease could wipe out all banana trees worldwide.
Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale & brussels sprouts
Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, and brussels sprouts are all cultivars (plants that can only be produced by selective breeding) of a wild plant, Brassica oleracea. The plant is also known as wild mustard and still thrives today.
Around two and half millennia, the plant only grew in parts of Europe and the Mediterranean. When people realized they could plant wild mustard for food, they engaged in selective breeding. Interestingly, planting different parts of the plant resulted in different vegetables. Ancient Romans and Greeks were plating seeds from the plant, which resulted in wild mustard with larger leaves— today known as kale and collard greens.
In the 1600s, people bred wild mustard with bigger leaf buds, resulting in a vegetable with lots of leaves— cabbage. Planting wild mustard with small heads became brussels sprouts, and the ones with big flowers became broccoli and cauliflower. Planting the stems of wild mustard resulted in kohlrabi.
The selective breeding of wild mustard is an ongoing process. In 1993, a Japanese seed company bred broccolini, a hybrid between broccoli and kai-lan (another cultivar of the plant).
Watermelons have been around for over five millennia. Archeologists have discovered watermelon seeds and watermelon paintings in 5,000-year-old settlements. It also took five millennia for the fruit to morph from a pale, full of seeds, strange whirly melon to the red, sweet fruit with fewer seeds we love today. How? Humans used selective breeding and picked the planting seeds from redder, fleshier watermelons, influencing the genetics of the melon. And that’s a good thing.
It may come as a surprise, but the main ingredient of your favorite juice didn’t exist in nature. While the common knowledge is that mandarin is a variety of an orange, it’s actually the other way around. Orange is a hybrid of crossbreeding the naturally occurring pomelo (Citrus maxima) and mandarin (Citrus reticulata). The pomelo fruit is large but bitter, and the mandarin is small but sweet. The combination of the two resulted in a juicy, perfectly sized orange. Humans have selectively bred oranges to create many varieties, making it easy to confuse oranges with other citrus fruits. Orange you surprised?
Modern peanuts are hybrids of two earlier peanut species: Arachis ipaensis and Arachis duranensis. Arachis duranensis grows between Bolivia and Argentina, whereas Arachis ipaensis grows within Bolivia. Since they both grew so far apart, it is unlikely that crossbreeding between the two happened naturally.
Eventually, researchers discovered that early South American settlers brought Arachis duranensis from the Andean valleys to Bolivia 10,000 years ago.
The settlers didn’t realize the potential of their new crop, but the bees did, and they crossed-pollinated both crops, resulting in a hybrid nut which is the ancestor of today’s peanuts. Well, that’s just nuts!
While the origins of grapefruit are somewhat hazy, one story claims that during the 1690s, Captain Shaddock planted pomelo (Citrus maxima) close to some orange trees in the West Indies. The pomelo and orange were later cross-pollinated to create the grapefruit.
It wasn’t until 1750 that Europeans learned about this citrus fruit when Reverend Griffits Hughes was fascinated by the discovery and named it “the forbidden fruit.” When the grapefruit reached the United States in 1823, it was mistaken for the pomelo. It wasn’t until 1948 that botanists discovered it was a hybrid fruit of the pomelo and orange.
It’s difficult to imagine a carrot that is not orange. And yet, before humans intervened, the wild carrot (Darcus Carotos) was white. The orange color of the carrot we know today came from millennia of crossbreeding different colored carrots. When humans began domesticating carrots in Persia in the 10th century A.D, the white roots soon began to change the hues to purple and yellow. By the 17th century, carrots eventually developed the orange color we see today. Carrot, believe it.
While the fuzzy fruit has been one of humanity’s favorite treats for thousands of years, when it was first domesticated 4,000 years ago, it was inedible. They were originally small, sour fruits. The stone of wild peaches made up more than 35% of the whole fruit. Originating in China, peaches spread to the west along the Silk Road, and with years of selective breeding, we got the sweet, fuzzy fruit of today, with the stone taking up only 10% of the succulent fruit.
The next time you bite into that juicy peach, remember that it wasn’t always so sweet and juicy.
Not only is boysenberry a human invention, but it is also named after its creator, the horticulturist Rudolph Boysen of Orange County. Boysen planted grafted berry vines on a farm in Anaheim in 1923, eventually breeding a successful hybrid.
At first, Boysen didn’t find any commercial success for his “berry” interesting invention. But after several years, a fellow farmer from California heard about the hybrid berry and took it upon himself to do something of it. The farmer brought the fruit to his California farm and turned the dying hybrid into the fruit we know today.
Boysenberry is considered to be a cross between loganberries, raspberries, and blackberries
Apples are members of the Rose family (Rosaceae), along with such other yummy edibles as peaches, cherries, plums, pears, strawberries, and raspberries. It has been determined by DNA analysis that apples are endemic to Kazakhstan, where the wild Malus sieversi—the apple’s great-great-great-grandparent, still thrives.
But the thing with apples is that they have a rather slippery genome and are victims of their own genetic creativity, also known as heterozygosity. This means that every planted apple seed is different from its parents. More than 7,5000 apple varieties exist today due to generations of grafting, selective breeding, and varied climate conditions.
Now, how do you like them apples?
When life gives you lemons, you do a genomic study and discover that it is actually a hybrid between bitter orange and citron (Citrus medica). While the exact origins of lemons are hazy, it is thought the citrus fruit to have first grown in Northeast India or northern Myanmar.
The modern almond we all know and love today is actually a hybrid of the wild almond, a notoriously bitter and potentially deadly nut. Although scientists still struggle to pinpoint the exact variant of the wild almond that was selectively bred to create the modern nut, there are some theories.
Amygdalus fenzliana (Fritsch) Lipsky is suspected of being almond’s wild ancestor because its seeds, trees, and fruits are similar to the modern-day nut. It can also be found in Armenia and Azerbaijan, where it is believed that humans selectively bred the almond we know today.
While the modern strawberry first appeared in the 18th century in France, its hybridization process began around the 14th century, when botanists planted wild strawberries in their gardens and realized that the fruit reproduced by cloning. This led to a long and rather fruitless process, as some of the grown strawberries never produced any fruit, and some stopped cloning.
It was in 1764 that the modern strawberry was created when the French botanist Antoine Nicolas Duchesne crossed a male species, Fragaria moschata, with a female variety of Fragaria chiloensis from Chile. Botanists before Duchesne didn’t realize that strawberries have male and female parts, which was why some flowers never produced any fruit.
While tomato is a natural berry native to South America, the fruit we love today was technically man-made. The ancestor of the modern tomato comes from the wild plant known as Solanum pimpinellifolium, which produces pea-sized yellow fruit. The Aztecs and other people in Mesoamerica ate the fruit fresh and cooked.
In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors brought the tiny fruit to Europe, where it instantly spread as an ornamental plant. Initially, botanists were suspicious of it as a food because they identified it as a nightshade, a relative of the poisonous belladonna. Eventually, tomato was recognized as edible, and years of selective breeding resulted in the big, juicy fruit we all love today.
Today one of the most cultivated crops in the world, corn was actually a human invention, and it can only survive if planted and protected by humans. According to DNA research, corn comes from a wild grass called teosinte, which was domesticated by indigenous peoples in southern Mexico about 10,000 years ago.
Teosinte looked nothing like the corn of today; it had small kernels placed sporadically on the husk. The corn was 1,000 times smaller and much harder to peel and grow than it is today and had 1.9% sugar. Over the years, through selective breeding, humans turned maize into something amazing, and that’s just corny.
Once upon a time, before the large, purple veggie was known as an eggplant, it was white, oval-shaped, small, and looked like an egg. The wild ancestor of the modern-day eggplant was cultivated in China, and it had spines where the plant’s stem connected to its flowers. Years of selective breeding have given us the eggplant of today.
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