For years, I’ve looked out at all of the types of plants in my garden without giving much thought to how they came to be. There are approximately 298,000 species of plants on Earth, but most of us have only ever seen a handful of these. Our favorites, such as tomatoes, roses, and watermelons, have been around for centuries, and each has a unique origin. The plants we know and love today come from all over the world and are believed to have evolved from green algae. Learning where some of your favorite plants originated from can make you appreciate them even more.
Tomatoes originated from the Andes, a mountain system that runs along South America’s eastern side. They were first cultivated as early as 700 AD by the Aztecs, but instead of mimicking the red, tennis ball-sized fruit we know today, tomatoes first appeared yellow and cherry-sized. During the late 1700s, much of Europe feared the tomato, giving it the name of “poison apple,” as those who ate them would die soon after. However, the real culprit was the pewter plates that the tomatoes were eaten on, as the acidity of the fruit would leach lead from the plates, resulting in lead poisoning.
The rose dates back 35 million years, according to fossil evidence. It is believed that this flower originated in Central Asia during a period known as the Eocene Epoch. The name “rose” comes from the Latin term “rosa.” In the Roman Empire, roses were grown in abundance and used for everything from confetti to perfume.
Watermelons are thought to have originated in the African Kalahari Desert, where they were valued as a portable source of water when natural supplies became contaminated. These fruits were cultivated in India and Egypt as far back as 2500 B.C. Evidence of the first recorded harvest nearly 5,000 years ago is depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphics on ancient buildings. Watermelon seeds were ultimately brought across the Atlantic Ocean to America on African slave ships, and farmers began growing the seeds in colonies as early as 1629.
“Basil” is a word derived from the male Greek name Vassilios, which originally appeared during the Hellenistic period. There are more than 40 varieties of this aromatic herb, which stems from the Lamiacea family of plants. Basil originated in Asia, and it spread by seed and plant to Egypt, where it was used to embalm and preserve mummies.
The potato is the fourth most abundant food crop, first cultivated by the Incas in Peru around 8000 BC to 5000 BC. When they were first discovered, wild potato tubers had a bitter taste and contained toxic amounts of alkaloids. The earliest cultivation methods enhanced their edibility, and plants were selected that were less bitter and toxic before being introduced to Europe in the 1500s AD. At first, many people were suspicious of the new vegetable, as some of the plant parts were still poisonous, but it soon caught on and was later brought to China.