Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Richer by Mesoamerica

The first of our large tomatoes reached harvesting stage yesterday; the cherry tomatoes shown with them ripened much earlier. This reminded me, once again—the thought recurs when I am focused on these very lovely fruits—that they were not known to Europe, Asia, or elsewhere until the European discovery of America. But sometimes I wonder, having such thoughts, if that is really true or whether I am simply echoing something I’d read or heard long ago but never looked up. So this morning I checked. Yes. The five major plants I’ve always linked—tomatoes, tobacco, potatoes, cacao, and maize—all originated in Mesoamerica, of which I provide a map for good measure. The first three of these belong to the Family of Solanaceae, called nightshades.

How that name, nightshade, got itself attached to such glorious sun-lovers as tomatoes is a puzzlement. The word, per Online Etymology Dictionary, comes from Old English nihtscada (the current German is Nachtschatten), apparently derived from a poisonous berry. As for potatoes, that grow in the dark, that makes sense. And tobacco, of course, can kill you as well. The Latin name is somewhat obscure; per Wikipedia it may derive from Solanum nigrum, the botanical name of a berry that goes by many names, including Hound’s Berry; parts of it are poisonous. The other explanation is that it comes from the Latin verb solari, meaning “to soothe,” an action attributed to the sometimes present pharmacological effects of this family of plants. Yes, for some, tobacco is a medicine against the stress of life.

The nightshades are represented by some 2,700 species in the vegetable kingdom; and they are not solely confined to Mesoamerica. But those in most common use come from that “middle” part that links the north to the south of the American continents. Cacao belongs to the family of Malvaceae; chocolate has everything to do with glory, nothing with the night or the shade. Now as for maize, it belongs to the family of Poaceae. Those huge ears, full of sugar, are actually the fruit of “true grasses” in the language of biology, and maize a giant among them.

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