Right from the moment of its discovery, the grapefruit has been a true oddball. Its journey started in a place where it didn’t belong, and ended up in a lab in a place where it doesn’t grow. Hell, even the name doesn’t make any sense.
THE CITRUS FAMILY OF FRUITS is native to the warmer and more humid parts of Asia. The current theory is that somewhere around five or six million years ago, one parent of all citrus varieties splintered into separate species, probably due to some change in climate. Three citrus fruits spread widely: the citron, the pomelo, and the mandarin. Several others scattered around Asia and the South Pacific, including the caviar-like Australian finger lime, but those three citrus species are by far the most important to our story.
With the exception of those weirdos like the finger lime, all other citrus fruits are derived from natural and, before long, artificial crossbreeding, and then crossbreeding the crossbreeds, and so on, of those three fruits. Mix certain pomelos and certain mandarins and you get a sour orange. Cross that sour orange with a citron and you get a lemon. It’s a little bit like blending and reblending primary colors. Grapefruit is a mix between the pomelo—a base fruit—and a sweet orange, which itself is a hybrid of pomelo and mandarin.
Because those base fruits are all native to Asia, the vast majority of hybrid citrus fruits are also from Asia. Grapefruit, however, is not. In fact, the grapefruit was first found a world away, in Barbados, probably in the mid-1600s. The early days of the grapefruit are plagued by mystery. Citrus trees had been planted casually by Europeans all over the West Indies, with hybrids springing up all over the place, and very little documentation of who planted what, and which mixed with which. Citrus, see, naturally hybridizes when two varieties are planted near each other. Careful growers, even back in the 1600s, used tactics like spacing and grafting (in which part of one tree is attached to the rootstock of another) to avoid hybridizing. In the West Indies, at the time, nobody bothered. They just planted stuff. Read the rest of this entry »
32,000 yrs ago an Arctic ground squirrel cached some fruit in its burrow, which was later sealed by sediment & frozen. In the 2000s scientists unearthed the fruit & cultivated its tissue. It grew into this: a Pleistocene ancestor of the narrow-leafed campion (Silene stenophylla)
Some of the excavated squirrel burrows contained *hundreds of thousands* of ancient fruit & seeds. All that genetic informationâ€”the ungerminated generations, the apparitions of Ice Age Earthâ€”frozen in time & place, preserving the possibility of resurrection.
Lost Indian crops of North America: a) goosefoot (Chenopodium berlandieri); b) sumpweed/mars helder (Iva annua); c) little barley (Hordeum pusillum); d) erect knotweed (Polygonum erectum); e) maygrass (Phalaris caroliniana).
We Europeans got potatoes, tomatoes, sweet corn, and tobacco from the Indians, but they apparently also cultivated a wide repertoire of crops which nobody adopted and which have been entirely forgotten.
Adventurers and archaeologists have spent centuries searching for lost cities in the Americas. But over the past decade, theyâ€™ve started finding something else: lost farms.
Over 2,000 years ago in North America, indigenous people domesticated plants that are now part of our everyday diets, such as squashes and sunflowers. But they also bred crops that have since returned to the wild. These include erect knotweed (not to be confused with its invasive cousin, Asian knotweed), goosefoot, little barley, marsh elder, and maygrass. We havenâ€™t simply lost a few plant strains: an entire cuisine with its own kinds of flavors and baked goods has simply disappeared.
By studying lost crops, archaeologists learn about everyday life in the ancient Woodland culture of the Americas, including how people ate plants that we call weeds today. But these plants also give us a window on social networks. Scientists can track the spread of cultivated seeds from one tiny settlement to the next in the vast region that would one day be known as the United States. This reveals which groups were connected culturally and how they formed alliances through food and farming.
Natalie Mueller is an archaeobotanist at Cornell University who has spent years hunting for erect knotweed across the southern US and up into Ohio and Illinois. She calls her quest the â€œSurvey for Lost Crops,â€ and admits cheerfully that its members consist of her and â€œwhoever I can drag along.â€ Sheâ€™s published papers about her work in Nature, but also she spins yarns about her hot, bug-infested summer expeditions for lost farms on her blog. There, photographs of the rare wild plants are interspersed with humorous musings on contemporary local food delicacies like pickle pops.
Indigenous to the Americas, erect knotweed grows in the moist flood zones near rivers. Itâ€™s a stalky plant with spoon-shaped leaves, and it produces achenes, or fruit with very hard shells to protect its rich, starchy seeds. Though rare today, the plant was common enough 2,000 years ago that paleo-Americans collected it from the shores of rivers and brought it with them to the uplands for cultivation. Archaeologists have found caches of knotweed seeds buried in caves, clearly stored for a later use that never came. And, in the remains of ancient fires, theyâ€™ve found burned erect knotweed fruits, popped like corn.
Mueller told Ars Technica that erect knotweed was likely domesticated on tiny farms on the western front of the Appalachians. There are clear differences between it and its feral cousins. After years of comparing the ancient seeds with wild types, Mueller has found two unmistakable signs of domestication: larger fruits and thinner fruit skins. We see a similar pattern in other domesticated plants like corn, whose wild version with tiny seeds is almost unrecognizable to people chomping on the juicy, large kernels of the domesticated plant.
Obviously, bigger seeds would make the erect knotweed a better food source, so farmers selected for that. And the thinner skin means the plants can germinate more quickly. Their wild cousins evolved to produce fruits tough enough to endure river floods and inhospitable conditions for over a year before sprouting. But farm life is cushy for plants, so these defenses werenâ€™t necessary for their survival under human care.
Still, even the domesticated fruits of the erect knotweed have skins so tough that Mueller has not been able to crack them using the stone tools typical of the Woodland era. Working with a team at Cornell, sheâ€™s been trying to reverse engineer how they could have been eaten.
â€œThe fruit coat is really hard, and it would have been necessary to break through it,â€ she mused. â€œItâ€™s like buckwheatâ€”the sprouts are nutritious. So maybe they ate the sprouted version.â€
As for whether early Americans ate popped knotweed like popcorn, she was less certain. â€œThe only way to preserve it is to burn it, so [the remains we find] could have been accidents while cooking. It might have been for drying.â€ But yes, people from long ago might have munched on popweed.
Another possibility is that the seeds were soaked in lime before being turned into a hominy-style porridge. Ancient Americans used limeâ€”the chemical, not the fruitâ€”to soften the hulls of maize before cooking it, in a technique called nixtamalization. Itâ€™s very likely the Woodland peoples used this prehistoric form of culinary science on other plants, too. So people 2,000 years ago may have been eating a rich, knotweed mush.
Mueller is currently cultivating her own erect knotweed to test various forms of preparation, but sheâ€™s not quite ready to go into the kitchen yet. â€œIâ€™m trying to be a good farmer and put my seeds back first,â€ she said. â€œIn five years of looking, Iâ€™ve only found seven populations of this plant. I want to conserve the seeds as much I can.â€ Sheâ€™s going to accumulate a sizable cache of seeds before wasting them on dinner.
The BBC reported recently on the greatest botanical mystery of Antiquity: what was Silphium exactly, and what happened to it?
Long ago, in the ancient city of Cyrene, there was a herb called silphium. It didnâ€™t look like much â€“ with stout roots, stumpy leaves and bunches of small yellow flowers â€“ but it oozed with an odiferous sap that was so delicious and useful, the plant was eventually worth its weight in gold.
To list its uses would be an endless task. Its crunchable stalks were roasted, sauteed or boiled and eaten as a vegetable. Its roots were eaten fresh, dipped in vinegar. It was an excellent preservative for lentils and when it was fed to sheep, their flesh became delectably tender.
Perfume was coaxed from its delicate blooms, while its sap was dried and grated liberally over dishes from brains to braised flamingo. Known as â€œlaserâ€, the condiment was as fundamental to Roman haute cuisine as eating your food horizontally in a toga.
Then there were the medical applications. Silphium was a veritable wonder herb, a panacea for all manner of ailments, including growths of the anus (the Roman author Pliny the Elder recommends repeated fumigations with the root) and the bites of feral dogs (simply rub into the affected area, though Pliny warns his readers never, ever to try this with a tooth cavity, after a man who did so threw himself off a house).
Finally, silphium was required in the bedroom, where its juice was drunk as an aphrodisiac or applied â€œto purge the uterusâ€. It may have been the first genuinely effective birth control; its heart-shaped seeds are thought to be the reason we associate the symbol with romance to this day.
Indeed, the Romans loved it so much, they referenced their darling herb in poems and songs, and wrote it into great works of literature. For centuries, local kings held a monopoly on the plant, which made the city of Cyrene, at modern Shahhat, Libya, the richest in Africa. Before they gave it away to the Romans, the Greek inhabitants even put it on their money. Julius Caesar went so far as to store a cache (1,500lbs or 680kg) in the official treasury.
But today, silphium has vanished â€“ possibly just from the region, possibly from our planet altogether. Pliny wrote that within his lifetime, only a single stalk was discovered. It was plucked and sent to the emperor Nero as a curiosity sometime around 54-68AD.
With just a handful of stylised images and the accounts of ancient naturalists to go on, the true identity of the Romansâ€™ favourite herb is a mystery. Some think it was driven to extinction, others that itâ€™s still hiding in plain sight as a Mediterranean weed. How did this happen? And could we bring it back?
Treehugger had a very cool item:
For thousands of years, Judean date palm trees were one of the most recognizable and welcome sights for people living in the Middle East — widely cultivated throughout the region for their sweet fruit, and for the cool shade they offered from the blazing desert sun.
From its founding some 3,000 years ago, to the dawn of the Common Era, the trees became a staple crop in the Kingdom of Judea, even garnering several shout-outs in the Old Testament. Judean palm trees would come to serve as one of the kingdom’s chief symbols of good fortune; King David named his daughter, Tamar, after the plant’s name in Hebrew.
By the time the Roman Empire sought to usurp control of the kingdom in 70 AD, broad forests of these trees flourished as a staple crop to the Judean economy — a fact that made them a prime resource for the invading army to destroy. Sadly, around the year 500 AD, the once plentiful palm had been completely wiped out, driven to extinction for the sake of conquest.
In the centuries that followed, first-hand knowledge of the tree slipped from memory to legend. Up until recently, that is.
During excavations at the site of Herod the Great’s palace in Israel in the early 1960’s, archeologists unearthed a small stockpile of seeds stowed in a clay jar dating back 2,000 years. For the next four decades, the ancient seeds were kept in a drawer at Tel Aviv’s Bar-Ilan University. But then, in 2005, botanical researcher Elaine Solowey decided to plant one and see what, if anything, would sprout.
“I assumed the food in the seed would be no good after all that time. How could it be?” said Solowey. She was soon proven wrong.
Amazingly, the multi-millennial seed did indeed sprout — producing a sapling no one had seen in centuries, becoming the oldest known tree seed to germinate.
Today, the living archeological treasure continues to grow and thrive; In 2011, it even produced its first flower — a heartening sign that the ancient survivor was eager to reproduce.
Botany, Endangered Species, Environmentalism, Franciscan Manzanita, Frivolous Spending and Waste, Official Idiocy and Incompetence, San Francisco
The government spent at least $205,075 in 2010 to â€œtranslocateâ€ a single bush in San Francisco that stood in the path of a $1.045-billion highway-renovation project that was partially funded by the economic stimulus legislation President Barack Obama signed in 2009.
â€œIn October 2009, an ecologist identified a plant growing in a concrete-bound median strip along Doyle Drive in the Presidio as Arctostaphylos franciscana,â€ the U.S. Department of Interior reported in the Aug. 10, 2010 edition of the Federal Register. â€œThe plantâ€™s location was directly in the footprint of a roadway improvement project designed to upgrade the seismic and structural integrity of the south access to the Golden Gate Bridge.
â€œThe translocation of the Arctostaphylos franciscana plant to an active native plant management area of the Presidio was accomplished, apparently successfully and according to plan, on January 23, 2010,â€ the Interior Department reported.
The bushâ€”a Franciscan manzanitaâ€”was a specimen of a commercially cultivated species of shrub that can be purchased from nurseries for as little as $15.98 per plant. The particular plant in question, however, was discovered in the midst of the City of San Francisco, in the median strip of a highway, and was deemed to be the last example of the species in the â€œwild.â€
Prior to the discovery of this â€œwildâ€ Franciscan manzanita, the plant had been considered extinct for as long as 62 years–extinct, that is, outside of peopleâ€™s yards and botanical gardens. …
While the MOA did not detail all the costs for moving the bush, it did state that in addition to funding removal and transportation of the Franciscan manzanita, Caltrans agreed to transfer $79,470 to the Presidio Trust â€œto fund the establishment, nurturing, and monitoring of the Mother Plant in its new location for a period not to exceed ten (10) years following relocation and two (2) years for salvaged rooted layers and cuttings according to the activities outlined in the Conservation Plan.â€
Furthermore, Presidio Parkway Project spokesperson Molly Graham told CNSNews.com that the â€œhard removalâ€â€”n.b. actually digging up the plant, putting it on a truck, driving it somewhere else and replanting it–cost $100,000.
The MOA also stated that Caltrans agreed to â€œTransfer $25,605.00 to the Trust to fund the costs of reporting requirements of the initial 10-year period as outlined in the Conservation Plan.â€
The $100,000 to pay for the â€œhard removal,â€ the $79,470 to pay for the â€œestablishment, nurturing and monitoringâ€ of the plant for a decade after its â€œhard removal,â€ and the $25,605 to cover the â€œreporting requirementsâ€ for the decade after the â€œhard removal,â€ equaled a total cost of $205,075 for â€œtranslocatingâ€ this manzanita bush.
But those were not the only costs incurred by taxpayers on behalf of the bush. According to the MOA, other costs included:
–â€œContract for and provide funding not to exceed $7,025.00 for initial genetic or chromosomal testing of the Mother Plant by a qualified expert to be selected at Caltransâ€™ sole discretion.â€ (MOA – Fran Man – 2009.pdf)
–â€œContract for and fund the input, guidance, and advice of a qualified Manzanita expert on an as-needed basis to support the tending of the Mother Plant for a period not to exceed five (5) years, provided that said expert selection, retention and replacement at any point after hiring rests in the sole discretion of Caltrans.â€
â€œProvide funding not to exceed $5,000.00 to each of 3 botanical gardens (Strybing, UC, and Tilden) to nurture salvaged rooted layers and to monitor and report findings as outlined in the Conservation Plan.â€
–â€œProvide funding not to exceed $1,500.00 for the long-term seed storage of 300 seeds collected around the Mother Plant in November 2009 as outlined in the Conservation Plan.â€
The plant is now protected by a fence and its location is kept secret, in part because the Presidio Trust and the National Park Service fear that nature-lovers seeking to see the rare wild Manzanita might trample it to death.
This nursery normally sells Franciscan manzanita.
It is a bit complicated. Hooker’s manzanita is a shrub indigenous to the San Franciso Bay Area with several subspecies. One of these subspecies, Franciscan manzanita, was thought to be “extinct in the wild.”
It, nonetheless, survived in cultivation in yards and gardens, and could be purchased from nurseries at modest prices.
Doubtless, the extinction “in the wild” of the subspecies specifically associated with San Francisco has a lot to do with the reduction of the extent of “the wild” in an intensely developed, densely populated urban center.
So, having found an example flourishing in what the authorities choose to define as the wild, those same authorities with the characteristic wisdom and fiscal responsibility concluded that pompous, heroic (and very costly) measures had to be taken to save the contextually-precious plant.
No one in authority noticed that all this was complete madness.
Since arriving in Virginia, Karen and I have frequently marveled at the Osage orange, a fruit-producing tree not encountered in my native Pennsylvania or in New England where we attended college and resided for decades.
The Osage orange was evidently ill-advisedly imported into Virginia as a decorative tree, and it responds to that hospitality by covering the ground every Fall with enormous bumpy fruits that nothing eats and which simply lie on the ground and rot.
I wondered out loud recently why a tree would bother to produce enormous fruits in great quantity that were inedible. Fruit production, after all, constitutes a system of bribery by members of the botanical kingdom. The tree or bush produces a tasty fruit or berry, and birds and animals consume them and consequently carry away and redistribute the plant’s seeds.
There are all those Osage orange trees busily producing gigantic, but inedible, citrus fruits that nobody wants. Why is this? I wondered. It just seemed very strange.
Happily, Karen found the answer just a few days later, in American Forests.
It turns out the Osage orange fruits, like certain others, used to have customers who liked eating them. Unfortunately, their natural Pleistocene megafauna audience went extinct.
[L]etâ€™s return to the forlorn fruit of the Osage orange. Nothing today eats it. Once it drops from the tree, all of them on a given tree practically in unison, the only way it moves is to roll downhill or float in flood waters. Why would you evolve such an over-engineered, energetically expensive fruit if gravity and water are your only dispersers, and you like to grow on higher ground? You wouldnâ€™t. Unless you expected it to be eaten by mammoths or ground-sloths.
According to my field guide, Osage-orange has a limited natural range in the Red River region of east-central Texas, southeastern Oklahoma, and adjacent Arkansas. Indians used to travel hundreds of miles for the wood, prized as the finest for making bows. Then European settlers planted it widely as living fences, taking advantage of the treeâ€™s ability to spread via shoots from lateral roots. But Osage-orange persisted, and became widely naturalized long after the invention of barbed wire rendered them useless to farmers. The tree can now be found in 39 states and Ontario. If Osage-orange does so well elsewhere, why was it restricted to such a small area?
The answer likely lies in the disappearance of its primary disperser. Without mammoths, groundsloths, and other megafauna to transport its seeds uphill, the range of the species gradually shrank to the Red River region. In fact, fossils tell us that Osage-orange was much more widespread and diverse before the megafaunal extinctions. Back then, Osage-oranges could be found north up to Ontario, and there were seven, not just one, species in the Osage-orange genus, Maclura.
Another anachronistic tree is the Kentucky coffeetree, so named because early Kentucky settlers used its beans as a coffee substitute. Coffeetrees have tough, leathery pods with large, toxic seeds surrounded by a sweet pulp. Water cannot penetrate the thick seed coat to begin germination unless it is abraded or cut. Sounds like mammoth food to me. The natural range of coffeetrees is concentrated in the Midwest, but without its megafauna disperser, it is generally rare and mostly limited to floodplains.
Much the same can be said about the honeylocust, with its sweet seedpods up to 18 inches long. It is more common than coffeetrees, and is found in upland areas because cattle have filled in for the mastodons, camels, or some other dearly departed megamammal with a sweet tooth. The big-fruited pawpaws, persimmons, desert gourds, and wild squash may also have been dispersed more efficiently by recently extinct mammals.
Now when you see an Osage-orange, coffeetree, or honeylocust, you might sense the ghosts of megafauna munching on treats made just for them.
Giant hogweed aka giant cow parsley (Heracleum mantegazzianum)
Giant hogweed, a species native to the Caucausus and Central Asia, was introduced in Britain in the 19th century as an ornamental. It has spread subsequently to Continental Europe, Canada, and the United States.
Giant hogweed can grow to a height of 23 feet (7 m.). It is invasive and its sap is highly toxic producing phytophotodermatitis, a chemical reaction causing skin cells to become hypersensitive to ultraviolet light, resulting in blisters, long-lasting scarring, and even blindness.
Giant hogweed has been found to date in Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington and Vermont.
I find the Sussman photograph of Box Huckleberry disappointing. It was made in the wrong season to show the plant at best advantage.
Rachel Sussman has spent five years on a personal project photographing living organisms more than 2000 years old.
Her list surprised me by containing a representative from my home state of Pennsylvania, the Box Huckleberry, Gaylussacia brachycera. It is a surviving relic of the Ice Age, like the brook trout, and something on the order of 100 colonies have been identified in seven mostly Appalachian states, running from from Pennsylvania to Tennessee.
The community at Losh Run, Perry County, Pennsylvania, near the Juniata River, has been estimated to be as much as 13,000 years old, making it the oldest living organism in the United States, second oldest in the world. Only King’s Lomatia, Lomatia tasmanica, a bizarre archaic angiosperm found in 1937 in southwest Tasmania is older. But you don’t get delicious edible berries from a Tasmanian angiosperm.
Perry County, PA site article
Lancaster News article from 1999
Duke article on North Carolina colony
Hat tip to Zoe Pollock.
The resulting tree is a specimen of the Judean date palm, Phoenix dactylifera, commonly mentioned in the Bible, and prized in Antiquity as a source of food and shade, as well as for its beauty and medicinal qualities, is thought to have become extinct around 500 A.D.
The tree’s sex is as yet unknown, and cannot be determined until the tree is mature. It is hoped that another seed of the opposite sex can also be germinated, and the species revived.
The oldest seed previously germinsted was a 1300 year old Chinese lotus.
The palm is now 5′ tall