Unless you go to a farmer’s market, much of the produce you buy comes from other states or even neighboring countries.
But if you think back to where fruits, vegetables and legumes actually originated, you’ll see that over 70% of the fruits and vegetables you’ll find in average supermarkets were first grown in completely different geographical regions than the ones in which they’re now cultivated.
Researchers from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and several other international universities did a broad analysis of different regions’ diets and produce, and published their results in the biology journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B in June. The researchers also placed the origins of each crop on interactive maps.
Most Americans are used to seeing apples and oranges in their local grocery store, but the fruits’ origins might be surprising. Here’s where six common varieties of produce were actually first grown.
Potatoes come from South America.
If the Irish famine mythologized anything, it’s that potatoes were a staple product of the area.
But it wasn’t always so. Scientists studied the potato’s genotype, and linked its origins to Peru and Bolivia. You can thank the Columbian Exchange, which happened in the 15th and 16th centuries, for the potato’s introduction to the Old World.
Pumpkins came from the Americas.
Though carving jack-o-lanterns originated as a time-honored Irish tradition, the practice wouldn’t be the same if the Columbian Exchange hadn’t brought pumpkins to Europe from the Americas.
The Royal Society’s study pegs the pumpkin’s origins to various regions in North, Central and tropical South America.
The calabaza, a squash that closely resembles the pumpkin, was consumed in pre-Hispanic Mexico as early as 5,500 B.C., according to BBC Travel. And according to the Oxford Handbook of Mesoamerican Archaeology, field pumpkin seeds thought to be 10,000 years old were found in a cave in Oaxaca.
Corn also originated in Mexico.
- Thomson Reuters
Many US schoolchildren learn about corn (also known as maize) in the context of Native American tradition, but the crop first came from Central America.
Archaeologists at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History have traced the origins of corn to south-central Mexico 8,700 years ago. That early corn was much smaller – the original husks of ancient Mexican corn were about a tenth of the size of today’s, according to researchers at the University of Utah. With selective breeding, the husk became much bigger and the kernels much sweeter.
America’s current agricultural system depends on corn as a staple – it’s almost as American as apple pie. Speaking of which…
Apples came from Europe and West Asia, not the Americas.
The saying “as American as apple pie” is a good reminder that we’re a country created by immigrants. DNA analyses of the main ingredient – the humble apple – show that the Malus sieversii, or wild apple, originated in Kazakhstan, according to National Geographic.
The Royal Society study also shows that other varieties of apples came from all over Europe, Central Asia, and East Asia, none of which are very close to the US.
The fruit was brought over to the Americas by colonists as early as the 17th century, but was used at the time to brew cider, not to eat.
Macadamia nuts are the only crop that originated in Australia.
Australia is the least crop-diverse region on the Royal Society’s map. At least 88% of Australia’s current crops are non-native, according to the Global Crop Trust, a nonprofit that coordinates shipments to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (which is also known as the doomsday seed vault since it stores seeds in case of emergencies).
But the macadamia nut, which came exclusively from an indigenous Australian tree that’s been cultivated for thousands of years, is now available worldwide. South Africa and China are currently big exporters, and you’ll see the nut in most grocery stores.
Peaches and oranges trace their origins back to East Asia.
- Thomson Reuters
Oranges might be the state fruit of Florida, but the citrus variety comes from Southern Asia, where it’s been cultivated for thousands of years. The grocery variety of sweet orange is actually a hybrid of 75% pomelo (another South Asian citrus) and 25% mandarin, a smaller variety of sweet orange that’s a fixture in East Asian culture.