Selectively breeding plants has allowed humans to create more versatile and plentiful sources of food throughout history. By carefully selecting which plants to breed based on their properties, horticulturalists have drastically changed the appearance and characteristics of many foods.
In the same way that humans turned wolves into Chihuahuas and Great Danes, farmers took wild plants and made them into the foods we see in produce aisles today. Here are three foods that are unrecognizable from when they started.
1. Wild Cabbage
Humans have selectively bred wild cabbage for so many years that the resulting cultivars look like completely different plants. In reality, many of these cultivars are technically the same species.
Brussels sprouts, kale, cauliflower, cabbage, kohlrabi, and broccoli are all of the species of Brassica oleracea. Other popular foods that come from wild cabbage include horseradish, boy choy, rutabaga, arugula, watercress, radish, and wasabi. Every single one of these variations came from breeding three different strains of wild cabbage in different ways.
All of these veggies fall under the category of cruciferous vegetables. The name comes from the fact that the flowers of these plants look like crosses (Cruciferae is New Latin for “Cross-bearing”).
Knowing that they’re related, it’s easier to see the resemblance. For instance, brussels sprouts look like tiny cabbages because that’s exactly what they are.
Many people complain that supermarket produce is selectively bred for all the wrong reasons. Instead of breeding for taste, growers look for hardiness, uniformity, and lack of seeds. Selecting for these qualities can subtly degrade the taste of the fruit or vegetable.
This situation may be true today, but for hundreds of years farmers did the opposite. They bred fruits and vegetables to be the best tasting possible. True, farmers have always taken into consideration disease-resistance and production, but the main goal was to create better and better tasting food.
In the case of the watermelon, humans turned the fruit from bitter and hard to sweet and succulent. We can observe the changes that watermelons went through by studying paintings through the years.
The giant fruit was a popular subject for still life paintings in the Middle Ages. This allows us to see what watermelons looked like hundreds of years in the past. We can watch them growing redder through the years (which translates to sweeter because the same gene is responsible for redness and sweetness).
We can also compare modern watermelons to their ancient counterparts because those wild ancestors still grow in the deserts of Egypt and Sudan. Surprisingly, people first harvested wild watermelons to eat the seeds. Now, we’ve gone so far as to create entirely seedless varieties.
Have you ever wondered where this large purple veggie got its name? This relative of potatoes and tomatoes used to be white and small. In fact, it looked a lot like an egg.
The Chinese carefully cultivated eggplants to develop the purple skin color and better flavor. They also bred out prickles, which the wild plants had to defend against being eaten.
The result is the massive purple vegetable (or fruit, to be more accurate) that we see in supermarkets today. The evolution of the eggplant is easy to trace because Chinese botanists documented their achievements. From the seventh to 19th century, we can see how farmers cultivated this unique plant.