History lesson on crops

In the Garden

Ralph Purkhiser, Purdue University Master Gardener

     Monday, October 11, will be Columbus Day, perhaps the least celebrated of all holidays.  Still, it is a federal holiday and banks and governmental offices will close.  In recent years, Columbus has somewhat fallen from favor and some believe this day, a celebration of his landing in the New World in 1492, should not be celebrated.  Some believe that his voyages and the exploration and exploitation that followed were not good events.  Others point out that the Norse had already been to North America, but did not begin colonizing.

     Today, most of us ignore Columbus Day.  In communities with a large Italian ethnic population, the day has become the official celebration of all things Italian.  Whatever you think of Columbus, his exploration changed the world.

     Just imagine a pizza without tomato sauce, peppers or pineapple.  (OK, I know many of you would just as soon not have pineapple on your pizza.)  Were it not for Columbus, tomatoes, peppers and pineapple might never have been known in Italy.  All of these plants are native to the western hemisphere and were taken to Europe in the great Columbian Exchange during the years following the voyages of Columbus.  Actually, it still took nearly 300 years for tomatoes to translate to tomato sauce.  For years, tomatoes were grown as ornamental plants and were thought to be poisonous.  Now, tomatoes are one of the main crops in Italy and the sauce is a staple for pizza and pasta.

     Other crops from the New World made their way into European kitchens.  Potatoes became such a staple that a potato blight resulted in a catastrophic famine in Ireland.  Squash and pumpkins also became staples in European homes.  The American wild sunflower made its way to Russia, where it was developed as a major grain crop.  Of course, the results of the breeding of the American plants in Europe eventually returned to the west and have become a part of our everyday diet. 

     Imagine a world without chocolate.  Cacao from South America was taken to Europe and experimentation resulted in the confections prized today.  One might say that the Snickers bar owes its existence to Columbus.  Peanuts were another food from the Americas. 

     Many berries were taken to Europe, including blueberries, black raspberries, cranberries and gooseberries.  Beans and corn (maize) were also American contributions to the diet of the world.  Avocadoes, papayas and passion fruit also made their way across the Atlantic. 

     Another American plant that has had a great impact on the world is tobacco.  It became the major cash crop for colonists in Virginia and the Carolinas, with most of the crop produced shipped to England and the European mainland.

     Of course, the Columbian Exchange brought old world plants to the new world.  Sugar cane, rice and coffee found fertile land for cultivation in the west.  Settlers found that the climate of sub-equatorial regions of the Americas would support citrus groves.  Cotton and flax could be grown in the colonies to supply the textile mills of England.  This exchange of goods resulted in fortunes for a few and gave rise to the slave trade.

     Europeans also brought new weapons and disease, resulting in the decimation of the native population.  Some of the plants brought in became invasive and wiped out the habitat of native plants and the wildlife they supported. 

     Whether you view Columbus as a hero or a villain, you have to admit that his “discovery” and the resulting exchange between cultures has changed the world.  I’ll gladly accept the day off and maybe eat some Italian food, complete with American ingredients.


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