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2. Wild things: Recently domesticated crops and crops that have returned to the wild: Cranberries, Huckleberries, Currants, Kiwifruits, Cacao, Cashew nuts, Pistachio nuts, Cabbages

Warren, J. CABI PDF

2

Wild things

What is the difference between a crop and a wild plant? The definition is not a black and white one. In this chapter we discover that many crops hardly differ from their wild ancestors, while others have slipped from our diet and returned to the wild. Even after thousands of years of cultivation, many crops are still grown alongside wild progenitors of the same species with genes regularly flowing in both directions. Modern genetic tools are revealing that some crops have been domesticated on several occasions.

In extreme cases, species that have been cultivated for millennia also occur as varieties that have just been plucked from the wild.

In the early days of the Soviet Union, the Russian scientist Nicholai

Vavilov realized that most of the world’s crops originated from a handful of ancient centres of domestication. Conversely, the great landmasses of

Australia and North America had contributed very little to our modern diet, except for a few minor players, which are in essence still wild species, such as macadamia nuts and cranberries respectively. These

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4. Storing up trouble: Plants with storage organs: Cassava, Yams, Potatoes, Taro, Akees, Onions

Warren, J. CABI PDF

4

Storing up trouble

Why do so few crops provide us with most of our calories? It is remarkable that we eat very few species of the plants that are available.

However, it is even more astonishing that we gain most of the energy we need to survive from a tiny sub-set of these species. This chapter explores this conundrum and finds that energy rich plants tend to contain toxins, and perhaps surprisingly, therefore, some of our most important crops have a propensity towards being poisonous.

In our modern world it is easy to be blissfully unaware of the most important challenge that species face. Although the solution to this problem may now seem trivial, for most of our history we have shared this challenge with plants and animals alike. In solving this dilemma for themselves, plants have frequently also provided us with a solution, while simultaneously creating a whole new set of difficulties for us to deal with.

The conundrum is ensuring that you have enough food to survive through lean seasons. The evolutionary struggle to eat and avoid being eaten has been highly influential in determining which plants we have domesticated, with different groups of crops providing us with sustenance and others helping protect this food from other hungry species competing to consume the same stores.

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8. Ownership and theft: How the economic value of crops has influenced their domestication: Breadfruits, Sugarcanes, Cloves, Rubber, Tea, Coffee, Mulberries, Monkey Puzzles, Artichokes, Pineapples

Warren, J. CABI PDF

8

Ownership and theft

By weight, plant products are some of the most expensive commodities on earth. You might expect therefore that this would have driven us to domesticate many more crops than we have. However, the reverse is probably true. This chapter includes several examples where crops have become so valuable that this has fuelled economic self-interest in those involved in growing and trading in these crops. This in turn has driven them to steal, smuggle, outlaw and even destroy these plants, to an extreme that has been damaging to our crop genetic resources.

Everywhere you look there are plants. Without plants there can be no animals and certainly no humans. We don’t just eat plants. While doing so; we sit on chairs made of plants, eat at tables made of plants, and live in homes built of plants. We clothe ourselves in plant fibres. They are used to make musical instruments and most of our great literature and art was produced on plant material, coloured with plant pigments. We ferment plants to produce alcohol. Chemicals derived from plants make us high and are also still the basis of most of our medicines. The list goes on and on. And yet, we still utilize a tiny proportion of the plants that are available to us. Not only are plants essential for most human activities, the crop plants that we exploit in so many diverse ways are the rare elite. This can make them incredibly valuable and the people who control their cultivation and trade exceedingly rich and powerful. It is no great surprise therefore that human history is bursting with stories of subterfuge, stealing and smuggling of crops plants. Breaking monopolies of supplies of crops frequently motivated the great journeys of discovery such as those of

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7. Classic combinations and recurring themes: Plant families that have been repeatedly domesticated: Grains, Legumes, Pumpkins, Spinaches

Warren, J. CABI PDF

7

Classic combinations and recurring themes

We have seen that the chance of a wild plant being domesticated is rather rare. However, a small number of plant families have independently provided us with important crops on several occasions. This chapter tries to identify what makes these families so special. It appears that each of these families produces seeds or fruits that are easily stored, or leaves that can be harvested over a prolonged season. In addition to this, it turns out that their nutritional properties and agricultural requirements perfectly complement each other.

It is said that humans consume every part of the pig, except for its squeak. Although the hog may be a versatile creature, the ways in which we utilize plants are far more varied. In spite of the fact that we routinely eat so few of the plant species that are available to us, we have found a seemingly endless list of ingenious uses for every plant product on offer.

We dig up roots and underground storage organs, while fruits and seeds are devoured with relish. Plant sap is tapped to turn into rubber, or poured over pancakes as maple syrup or fermented to make birch sap wine. More viscous plant secretions give us varnish, glues and violin resin. Unopened flower buds provide us with the very different flavours of cloves and capers plus the rather less exotic tasting cauliflower. The stigmas and styles of crocus flowers are harvested to give us the spice saffron, and nectar is plundered from agave flowers to produce a range of desserts. The bark of trees provides us with items as diverse as cork, cinnamon and materials for building canoes. We use fibres from cotton and linen to make fabrics that are dyed using plant pigments. The fluffy fibres that

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9. Fifty shades of green: Nutrient rich crops and the next generation: Clovers, Ryegrass

Warren, J. CABI PDF

9

Fifty shades of green

This final chapter identifies the fact that we appear to have preferentially domesticated plants from highly nutrient rich habitats. Neither this observation nor the role of pollination strategy had previously been considered to be important in the history of crop domestication. Earlier attempts to explain why we rely on so few crop species have argued that the limiting factor has been the availability of suitable plants. Here I conclude by proposing that what limits the number of species that we currently grow and consume, is our own imaginations, prejudices, traditions and vested interests. If this is true, in the future we may enjoy a whole myriad of new fruits and vegetables that are better for our health, and less demanding of the world’s limited resources.

It is frequently but apocryphally claimed that Eskimos have 50 words to describe snow. Closer to reality, but almost never quoted is the observation that there are 45 words for shades of green in the Icelandic language. In fact in most languages there are many more words to differentiate shades of green than there are for any other colour. This is because we live on a planet dominated by the colour green, where the forces of natural selection have equipped our species with eyes that are particularly sensitive to light in the green sector of the spectrum. We have evolved as botanists with acute abilities to differentiate plant species.

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