The History of Fruits & Vegetables
When the first hunters and gatherers began to notice they could plant seeds, manipulate growth and manage plant fertility, a great transformation began to happen. Throughout the eons, that transformation has continued, as humans have not only managed to grow plants, but create their own specialized varieties that have specific tastes or are designed to grow in certain areas. The development of fruits and vegetables may be among the most important of human developments.
Archaeological evidence indicates human beings first began to grow their own food likely between 8000 and 9000 B.C. Much of that evidence was found in the Fertile Crescent, a region extending roughly from Israel and up the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea through Turkey and down into Iraq near the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. That was one of the most fertile areas of Mesopotamia during that time period and where early agriculture is believed to have begun. Vegetables, more specifically annuals including peas and grains, were likely the first food crops to be domesticated.
Like all good ideas, eventually it grew. First, there was a system of bartering goods and services for their relative value. Fruits and vegetables were used for this purpose in many cases. One of the earliest examples of a commercial venture with fruits and vegetables was with Feng Li, a Chinese diplomat living about 5000 B.C., who devoted his time to growing a variety of fruits, including apples and pears.
The Middle East and Egypt
Although the process of cultivation eventually came to include perennials, such as fruit and nut trees, early agriculture was still at the mercy of the elements. Those growing fruits and vegetables had no way of dealing with things like droughts until about 4000 B.C. At that point, farmers near the Euphrates River began constructing dams and canals to bring water to parched fields. The Egyptians also practiced irrigation and even buried fruits and vegetables, especially figs, in tombs for the dead to enjoy in the afterlife.
The age of the Roman Empire saw the most significant progress in the development of fruits and vegetables. Greenhouses were invented and used by Roman Emperor Tiberius approximately 30 years after the birth of Christ. Further, writers of the time describe crops being rolled on great beds out in the sun or into the greenhouses, depending on the weather. Instead of glass, those greenhouses were made using translucent sheets of mica. It is generally assumed that Tiberius used the greenhouse for many different fruits and vegetables, especially cucumbers. However, some historians believe the greenhouses were used more for melons than cucumbers.
The Middle Ages
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Manorial System flourished during the Middle Ages. Gardens containing a variety of fruits and vegetables, most notably fruit trees and strawberries, were kept close to the manor house. Some were even enclosed to help control pests and protect plants from climate abnormalities. Crop rotation also began during this time. The Muslims also introduced many new crops into Europe during this time, including citrus, rice, almonds and figs.
Marco Polo's travels to Asia at the end of the 11th century and beginning of the 12th added a great deal to the reawakening of Europe. Marco Polo was able to return home not only with spices and gold, but also a variety of information related to the advancements of horticulture in China, including information about the country's vast orchards. Still, not all was positive for fruits and vegetables during this time period. For example, Hugo Van Der Goes, in 1740, painted "The Fall of Man," which depicted an apple as the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. That led to a suspicious attitude toward apples.
The discovery of the "New World" also led to the discovery of new fruits and vegetables that were returned to Europe. Among the more notable of those were potatoes, maize (corn), tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and cocoa, which today are staples of the Western diet.
From the first controlled apple hybridization experiments conducted by Englishman Thomas Andrew Knight in 1790, the modern history of fruits and vegetables is one of continued manipulation. Today, seedless watermelons, grapes that are able to survive in extremely cold climates, bananas that can stay fresh when shipped long distances, and the huge variety of fruits and vegetables in most supermarket produce sections are all a testament to what humans can accomplish.