Science has identified over a quarter of a million plants in the world. Man uses only about 1,500 of
these and only about 300 are commercially grown.
In ancient prehistoric times, although much of man's energy was expended in hunting to provide meat
for his clan's survival, surely a keen interest developed in the plant life that abounded everywhere. The
clan's children and other non-hunters, under the supervision of the elders, must have gathered tree
limbs and bushes for cooking fires. This daily contact must have made them intimately acquainted with
plants, herbs and roots. Tribal lore would have passed along the learning's of previous generations,
while the current generation's curiosity combined with trial and error insured an increasing knowledge of
wild plant life.
Radishes, turnips, mustard seed, and onions were among the early vegetables eaten by prehistoric
man. When gathered they must have been stored prior to cooking or eating and observation would
have detected some items sprouting. Investigation would have revealed that a seed had created the
sprout; the next step of planting the seed or sprout was a logical one.
Understanding of plants, sprouts and seeds was important, and small plots of favorite vegetables were
probably maintained close to the cave homes of early man. But before this knowledge could be used as
the foundation of the great early civilizations, the domestication of animals to pull the deep furrowing
plows was necessary.
The Sumerian civilization that developed along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers was based on cultivation
of land which required irrigation canals from the great rivers to supply water to the crops and
domesticated animals to till the soil. In time the irrigation system, such a boon to crop growing, proved
to be a curse due to salinity. On the Indian subcontinent the well planned metropolis of Mohen-jo-Daro,
dating back to 4000 BC, with brick houses, indoor bathrooms, and an underground sewage system
thrived on the cultivated Indus Valley. Unfortunately the constant irrigation which gave such bountiful
crops also raised the saline and alkaline content of the soil. Eventually production dropped drastically
and Mohen-jo-Daro withered and died.
The Egyptians were luckier. Nature provided irrigation water through annual floods that also renewed the
topsoil when the flood waters receded and deposited the rich silt carried from up-river. Mother nature's
irrigation was reliable and effective for millenniums until modern times when the Aswan High Dam was
completed in 1970. Now Egypt faces problems of soil salinity, threatening crop output, an increase in
Bilharzia disease, caused by a parasitic worm, the African blood flute, that burrows into the skin and
attacks the liver and bladder, as well as the loss of a fishing industry, thanks to the Aswan High Dam.
Barley, wheat, rye, millet, chick peas, lentils, beans, turnip, onion, garlic, leaks, cucumber, lettuce, cress,
mustard seed and a variety of fruits with a few exceptions were common to most of the ancient
civilizations. However, different plants and herbs were native to certain locations, influenced by the
climate and soil. In China rice, soybeans, and green peas were popular; the Sumerians enjoyed the
cucumber, which strangely took time to get to Egypt, where the muskmelon was cultivated as early as
2400 BC. As trade developed between cities, states and nations, an exchange of goods, foods and
seeds took place. Generally the northern people had less interest in eating vegetables than their
There were superstitions connected to vegetables; also many were believed to have aphrodisiac
qualities. Asparagus, artichokes, beans, eggplant, garlic, onions, parsley, and tomatoes are but a few
credited with mystical power capable of stimulation and fertilization at times during the past.
Egyptians began their banquets with cabbage, believing it kept them from becoming drunk from drinking
wine, a superstition accepted in later times by others. It was believed that all food from the earth was
the spur of love, and our word vegetable is derived from the Latin word 'vegetus' meaning active or lively.
The ancient Greeks enjoyed vegetables, wrote much about them, and thought so much of radishes that
they made gold replicas of them. Emperor Nero ate quantities of leeks, believing they improved his
singing voice. Emperor Tiberius loved cucumbers and insisted the royal gardener develop a way to grow
them out of season.
Vegetables were slow making inroads in England. Even by 1440 only cabbage, lettuce, radishes and
spinach were eaten. As late as 1544 the tomato was used as a decorative plant rather than for its food
value, although ketchup was being made from the fruit.
Until Columbus and the later Spanish explorers returned home from what they believed to be India,
Europe had not known such foods as turkey, guinea fowl, or turtle meat, cashew nuts, black walnuts,
cocoa, vanilla, pineapple, papaya, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, kidney beans, lima beans, navy
beans, snap beans, squashes or pumpkins, or the peppers of the capsicum family that produce chili,
pepper and cayenne.
American colonists learned the wonders of corn products from the Indians: even a milk was obtained by
mixing corn with chestnut juice, a sugar obtained from fresh cornstalks, a porridge from coarse ground
corn, corn breads and popcorn. Succotash originally was made with corn and kidney beans. The Indians
taught the settlers that when the oak tree leaves were as big as mice ears to plant the kernels, placing a
small fish between them under a mound of earth. Undoubtedly the dogs in the settlement disliked corn
planting. For forty days after corn planting one paw was tied to their neck to keep them from digging up
the fish which were decomposing and fertilizing the soil.
Today our food supply seems endless, with the world's main problems being those of surplus and
distribution, but is this true? There is serious over-population and the trend continues with the number
of people on earth doubling every forty to fifty years. In western United States water is becoming so
critical that two small desalinization plants are already operating and more are planned. There is a
serious salinity problem in California which produces a large share of the vegetables and fruits sold in
the United States. Throughout the world we are relying on the same strain of many plant species for our
food. This places the world-wide crop in danger of being destroyed by a single strong disease such as
the fungus that ruined the Irish and European potato crops in the 1840's.
Sometimes we want to believe in the miracles of modern science. However, their ability to quickly conjure
a solution does not necessarily produce what is best for society. The Aswan High Dam in Egypt has
conclusively proved this. -The End- 24 July 2002