Food Plant Life Stories

By Eve Pranis

Are you aware that Pilgrims considered tomatoes an abomination on a par with dancing, card playing, and theater going; fried peas were sold to spectators in lieu of popcorn in ancient Roman theaters; the humble potato helped fuel the Industrial Revolution?

Imagine the opportunities for exploring world history by using the life stories of common garden plants and vegetables as a lens. While your students are raising tomatoes, sunflowers, peanuts, or other favorites in their GrowLab indoor gardens or outdoor plots, invite them to become sleuths and discover how the plants' histories are woven into our own. Here are some questions to consider on this journey. When did early humans begin to cultivate this vegetable? What were some of the uses, folklore, agricultural practices associated with the food? What does the history of the name of the food reveal about its character or uses? How was the food/plant involved in or related to major events in world history? How did the food's popularity or association with different social classes shift over time? If the food did not originate in America, how did it get here? Read on for some highlights on the coming of age of a few familiar garden vegetables.

Onions: Odorous Healers

It's no wonder that early hunter gatherers searching for food noticed the distinctive aroma of wild onions. These familiar bulbs are believed to have originated in central Asia and have been cultivated for at least 5,000 years. There is evidence, in fact, that Egyptians stuffed onions into body cavities of mummies along with the sawdust! In Greece and Rome, onions, with their "vulgar" smell, were seen primarily as fodder for the lower classes, while in the Middle Ages the greens of onions were thought to be aphrodisiacs. Onion juice in Elizabethan times was used to treat a range of ailments, from baldness to hemorrhoids. By the 16th century, upper classes had finally acquired a taste for onions, which were typically disguised in soups and sauces. The lowest decks on the Mayflower carried loads of these nutritious bulbs, which would grace Pilgrims' gardens. Native Americans had already discovered and gathered wild onion relatives to eat and use to treat bee stings, wounds, and colds.

Onions: Growing Investigations

Consider inviting students to investigate different methods of growing onion bulbs (hydroponically or in soil mix, for example). Have them explore the structure of these bulbs and compare them with other edible (e.g., garlic) and non-edible (e.g., tulip) bulbs. Experiment with different ways of cooking onions, using the skins for dyeing, and testing some of the folk wisdom about onions? healing properties.

Corn: Sustainer of Life

By the time Columbus landed in the New World, corn had already been cultivated by indigenous people for more than 3,000 years. It's believed that early Mexican farmers some 7,000 years ago cross-pollinated different wild grasses, saved seeds from the best plants, and eventually discovered this new type of grain.

Corn became a staple of the Aztec, Mayan, and other North and South American civilizations, and was honored and revered as a life-giving gift from the creator. Many Native American cultures had corn gods, corn mothers, corn maidens, special corn-sowing dances, and harvest festivals of thanks. When the first starving colonists arrived in North America, they were introduced to this nourishing food which they soon learned to grow and incorporate into their diets (going so far as to eat popcorn with cream and sugar for breakfast)! In addition to eating corn and using it to make whiskey, early Americans used the cobs as bottle stoppers, tool handles, checkers, mattress stuffing, and even paper!

Corn: Growing Investigations

Corn in the classroom is a great choice for plant growth experiments. In some cases, it has actually been grown to its tasseling stage in GrowLab indoor gardens. The most compelling way to discover cultural and historical connections with corn is by raising a Native American "three sisters" garden of corn, beans, and squash.

Potatoes: Humble Tubers That Changed History

Ancestors of the Incas living high in the Andes in South America more than 6,000 years ago are believe to have encountered many types of small, bitter wild potatoes. When Spanish explorers came to Peru in the 1500s looking for gold and silver, they paid little attention to these homely tubers that the Incas had learned to cultivate.

Many Europeans were skeptical of the few potatoes that were brought back, since this strange new food that grew underground wasn't even mentioned in the Bible! It didn't help matters when Queen Elizabeth's cooks threw out the tubers and cooked the leaves and stems, promptly making the royal guests ill. But by the mid-1800s, potatoes had become one of Europe's most important foods. It was a nutritious crop that the poor masses could grow easily on small plots in poor soils. Nourished on potatoes, more children survived than were needed to help on farms, and as more people moved to cities to work in factories, the Industrial Revolution thrived. The Irish practically stopped growing other crops, but in 1845 a fungal disease killed almost all of the potato plants, creating widespread starvation and forcing their mass migration to America.

Potatoes: Growing Investigations

Invite students to try raising potatoes in containers in the classroom. Consider challenging them to determine the smallest piece of potato that, when planted indoors or out, will produce a new potato plant. (It's rumored that poor farmers have started new plants from mere potato peelings containing eyes!) Does the size of a seed potato piece affect the size of the plant? Research how different cultures and gardeners have raised potatoes, then experiment with different methods (growing in trenches, on top of soil covered with hay mulch, or in piles of compost, for instance).

Digging Deeper with Plant Histories

Explore different cultures' relationships with plants and plant foods (e.g., Native Americans, U.S. colonial settlers, Mexicans, Africans). Consider focusing on the food heritage of your own region.

Interview elders in your community. Question parents, grandparents, and others about how the foods they've eaten or plants they've grown have shifted over their lifetimes. Gather culturally important recipes, learn about special gardening techniques, or dig up relevant folklore or memories of plants used for celebrations or healing. Use some of this information to spark new investigations.

Discover the origins of local wild and cultivated plants. If they're not native to this country, explore how and why the plants traveled here and map their routes from their countries of origin. Explore their folklore and historical uses and their ecological roles.

Research the life histories and uses of foods that originated in the Americas such as beans, corn, peppers, potatoes, peanuts, pineapples, pumpkins, squash, strawberries, and sunflowers. Try raising some in your classroom or outdoor garden.

Raise foods or use gardening techniques from other cultures and/or eras. What can you learn about the time period by exploring these? For instance, a Native American "three sisters" garden, or a colonial, English cottage, Japanese, Mexican, African, or Southern plantation kitchen garden.

Grow and save "heirloom" seeds of old plant varieties. Learn about their histories and try to determine why different varieties were valued.

Examine historical works of art, music, or writing and look for plant images and references. What can you infer about the cultures' relationships with the depicted plants?

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