That fresh salad chock full of your favorite vegetables may look all natural, but in a very real way no matter how organically they were grown, it’s nothing more than a bowl of human-made plant mutants.
Humans have been tinkering with edible plants for thousands of years to improve how they look, grow, taste and store.
The results are the human-made, manipulated vegetables that Maine gardeners plant every spring and enjoy throughout the year either fresh or preserved. Some would not exist without that manipulation and others bear little resemblance to what they looked like in the wild centuries ago.
This group includes broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale and cabbage. And while they all do well in Maine gardens, you will never find any of these in the wild. They were all created centuries ago with selective breeding using the same plant — brassica oleracea — a wild mustard also known as wild cabbage, according to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
At some point 1,000 or so years ago, humans discovered if they planted different parts of the wild mustard, they would get different vegetables. Eventually, they could grow broccoli from crossing the mustard flowers and stems. Selective breeding of the mustard leaves produced kale. Cauliflower came from the flower clusters, Brussels sprouts came from the side buds and cabbage from the end buds.
Over time, farmers perfected the planting and breeding techniques to produce the distinctive flavors of these now common vegetables.
The recognizable heads of the cauliflower and broccoli came later with specialized breedings among the plants in the early 1600s, according to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
Unlike the cruciferous veggies, there are wild carrots. But they pale — quite literally — when compared to the rainbow of popular root crops of today.
The earliest known ancestor of modern carrots is Queen Anne’s lace, a wildflower native to Europe and Asia that has spread globally. While it is edible, experts advise to stay away from it as it is easily mistaken for similar looking wild toxic plants including poison hemlock.
Wild carrots are white and it took thousands of years of cross breeding to get the orange, red, purple and yellow varieties grown today.
The Persians were the first to domesticate carrots in the 10th Century. Those early farmers may have recognized the advantages of brightly colored carrots because it allowed them to distinguish between the wild and cultivated varieties, according to a 2016 study published online in BioScience.
Yellow and purple carrots were first seen in Central Asia about 1,100 years ago and the familiar orange carrot was developed in Europe much later, around 400 years ago.
You say tomato
There is a bit of disagreement on the details of just when and exactly where the first tomatoes were domesticated, but scientists agree it was in South America, according to the University of Illinois Extension.
There is research to support it beginning with a blueberry-sized fruit in South America when humans started cultivating it 7,000 years ago. They selected the seeds from the largest harvested fruit for the next season’s planting, resulting in a cherry-sized tomato.
But other research has shown it was 1,000 years earlier that farmers in Ecuador developed the cherry-sized tomato.
It took a long time, but in the 1500s Spanish colonizers brought these small tomatoes back to Europe where years of selective breeding resulted in the multiple varieties planted today.
This manipulation has not stopped because researchers continue to develop tastier, hardier and more colorful mutants.