Food

Image banner: grapes, blueberries, potoatoes, mixed berries, peppers, and corn.

Camas lily.
Camas lily (Camassia quamash) is a native plant that was planted by Western Native Americans. Roots were eaten and made into flour. Camas lily is very similar in appearance to deathcamas (Zygadenus spp.), which is poisonous. Please do not collect and eat wild plants unless you are absolutely certain of their identity! Photo by Kim Pierson.

Banana yucca.
Bananna yucca (Yucca baccata) is used for food, medicine, fiber, dye, and ceremony. Photo by Vic Bradfield.

Humans have utilized plants to provide for their basic needs, including food and shelter, since before recorded time. Long ago, humans started engaging in forms of plant management to achieve desired outcomes. Activities for plant management included:

  • Altering habitat to promote certain plants or certain traits of plants;
  • Burning to create an open forest and to burn off old stems of plants and stimulate the growth of fresh, new shoots;
  • Sowing seed for cultivation to propagate the species; and,
  • Transplanting plant materials and seeds to increase plant production.

Over time, the planting and propagating of useful wild plants led to domestication (the intentional selection for useful traits). As a result, many plant species became dependent on humans for survival and reproduction. Examples of important domesticated plants include:

  • Middle East: wheat, barley, oats, apples, and figs
  • Africa: barley, millet, coffee, okra, and watermelon
  • Far East: rice, soybeans, ginger and eggplant
  • Mesoamerica: corn, beans, squash, cacao, and avocado
  • South America: potatoes, tomatoes, peanut, and pineapple
  • Europe: olives, beets, walnuts, basil, oregano, and celery
  • North America: sunflower, cranberry, blueberry, and pecan

Native Americans used plants as a main source of food. Native Americans have documented over 1,600 plant species for use as food. These plants range in diversity, location, and use.

Table 1. - Plants most commonly used by Native Americans for food. (Moerman,D. Native American Ethnobotany, 1988.)
Plant Number of Uses
Common chokecherry 163
Banana yucca 126
Corn 121
Saskatoon serviceberry 117
Honey mesquite 79
American red raspberry 74
Saguaro 72
Salmonberry 71
Thimbleberry 71
Broadleaf cattail 71

When Christopher Columbus sailed west to the New World in 1492, he discovered a lot more than just new people and new land. He discovered new kinds of food that Europeans had never heard of or seen before.

Table 2. - Columbus and others exploring the new world encountered many important foods that originated in the Americas and are now a major component in today’s agricultural markets.
Food Find Fun Facts
Corn
  • Domesticated from a wild plant called teosinte at least 7,000 years ago
  • Sacred crop for the Mayans
  • Corn taken to Europe by explores and quickly spread to Turkey and North Africa
  • Changed African diet dramatically
Potatoes
  • First encountered in 1535 by the Spanish
  • Andean natives were cultivating three thousand varieties before the Spanish arrived
  • Today more than 100 countries grow potatoes
  • Potatoes arrive in North America in the late 1600s but production did not occur until late 1700s
Tomatoes
  • Tomato is native to Mexico
  • Tomatoes were in Asia as early as 1521
  • The Spanish took tomatoes to Europe after they were introduced to China, Japan, and India
  • Tomatoes weren’t grown in Italy until the mid 1500s
Peppers (bell pepper, chili pepper)
  • The chili pepper is thought to have originated in Bolivia
  • Wild chiltepine peppers have been used for at least 8,000 years
  • Peppers were important to the Incas and the Aztec Empires before they were traded throughout the world
Chocolate
  • Chocolate comes from the cacao plant
  • The word Chocolate comes from Aztec dialect
  • The Aztecs considered chocolate a gift from the gods
  • Chocolate is made from the toasted fermented cacao seeds
Vanilla
  • Vanilla is harvested from an orchid
  • First domesticated in Central America
  • Madagascar’s Bourbon Islands are the most important producers of vanilla beans
Peanut
  • There are more than 80 wild peanut varieties
  • Peanuts were so highly regarded by ancient Amazonians that their images were cast in metal and buried with their royalty
Cassava root (manioc)
  • Staple food for over 500 million people
  • Can contain poisons that must be removed prior to eating
  • Griddles used to cook manioc date back to 2,000 BC in South America
  • Cassava contributes 37% of the calories consumed in Africa
Avocado
  • Known only as cultivated species
  • Found in archeological deposits dating to 7,000 BC
  • Likely domesticated 3 separate times
  • Have the highest energy containing fruit pulp known

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