Garden History Vegetables

The Ever-So-Slow Adoption of New Vegetables

Boy sticking out tongue at broccoli.

By Larry Hodgson

I can recall when my father first grew broccoli (Brassica oleracea italica) when I was a boy. It was a new and trendy vegetable back then, at least where I lived (it has been grown in Italy since Roman times), but I wanted nothing to do with it. Nor did my siblings or even my mother. He had to force us to try it … and even then, I claimed to hate it. I’ve gotten used to it since, though and broccoli has become an “everyday vegetable,” not only for me, but, I suspect, most people in North America and Europe, although apparently former US President George H. W. Bush has never adapted to it.

Well, it wasn’t just my family that was reluctant to try new food plants. The history of vegetables is full of stories of serious hesitations about trying anything coming from elsewhere. Whole societies often disdained the new arrival and that dislike could last generations, even hundreds of years. Here are a few examples:

Tomato

Hand holding 3 tomatoes.
Tomatoes may be popular today, but Europeans certainly weren’t eager to try them at first.
Photo: Robert, Wikimedia Commons

The case of the tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) is one of the best known ones of human reluctance to consume new plants. Well known to the Aztecs and other tribes of South and Central America, the tomato (from the Aztec name tomatl) was probably sent to Europe by Christopher Columbus or Hernán Cortés, therefore at the end of the 15th or the beginning of the 16th century. Certainly, it was known in Europe in 1544, when a first European publication mentions it, but it was only used at that time as an ornamental plant. No one was eating it.

Nightshade berries
The poisonous nightshade (Solandum dulcamara) was so similar to the tomato that people long thought it was poisonous too. Photo: Rosser1954, Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, Europeans, seeing a resemblance between the tomato and the very poisonous nightshade (S. dulcamara), a plant of the same genus, refused to eat it, believing that it must be just as toxic. And even after the tomato began to find some success in Spanish cuisine some two centuries later, in the 18th century, the Catholic Church still condemned its consumption, believing that such a brightly colored fruit must necessarily stimulate sexual desire!

There were still hesitations about eating tomatoes right through the 19th century. In 1830, for example, concerned that his people were missing out on a delicious and healthy vegetable, Robert Gibbon Johnson announced publicly that he was going to eat a basket of tomatoes on the steps of the courthouse in Salem, Massachusetts. The townspeople flocked to the show, convinced that they were going to watch him die in excruciating pain. But he survived, convinced others to try them and that did help improve the reputation of the tomato in the United States. Even so, you won’t find many family recipes including tomatoes in the US or Canada before the early 20th century.

Potato

Potato tubers
The potato was considered only useful for feeding pigs and prisoners. Photo: Bff, Wikimedia

The potato (Solanum tuberosum) belongs to the same genus as the tomato. It was domesticated around 7 to 10,000 years ago in Peru and transported to Europe by the Spaniards as early as the 16th century as a potential vegetable. But the Spaniards didn’t like it, nor did other Europeans. In the rare places where it caught on as a crop, it was used mostly to feed pigs … and prisoners.

It was the French pharmacist and agronomist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (1737–1813), convinced that the potato could be the solution to the frequent famines of the time, who promoted potato consumption, going so far as to publish easy recipes based on potatoes … but he had very little luck at first. Seeing the continuing reluctance of the French to taste this tuber, Parmentier had a brilliant idea. He planted a field of potatoes near Paris and had it guarded by heavily armed men, but only during the day. The Parisians, curious to see a farmer’s field thus guarded, were convinced that the potato must have a very great value. So, they came and stole the tubers at night … and thus the people of France, and later of all Europe, began to eat potatoes. And we still use some of Parmentier’s many recipes to this day!

Corn

Cob of corn
Corn didn’t appeal to Europeans at first either. Photo: Rasbak, Wikimedia

Developed in Mexico about 9,000 years ago and widely distributed in the Americas, corn or maize (Zea mays) was quickly adopted by Christopher Columbus who had nothing but praise for this plant, both as a vegetable and as a cereal, and he brought seeds back to Spain on returning from his first trip in 1493. However, corn did not appeal to the Spaniards at first. They worried that, if you ate native foods, you would lose your European features and become “a savage.”

However, the plant slowly made progress and was adopted here and there, then more widely. After all, it is an incredibly useful plant (you can use if for flour, oil, sugar, porridge, fresh eating and so much more). Certainly, the Spaniards who settled in the colonies in the New World had no choice but to adopt it: wheat, oats and rye didn’t grow well in the heat of the American tropics, but corn did. As a result, they soon began embracing it. As Spain began adopting corn, peoples from neighboring countries also began using it. Then Arab traders, who learned about it through the Spanish colonies in northern Africa, spread the culture of corn throughout the tropics. As early as 1525, thanks to Arab traders, it was already being grown in Africa, Asia and some parts of Oceania. 

But Northern Europeans were much slower to adopt corn, at first, largely for climatic reasons. The corn imported from Mexico was adapted to long, hot summers and didn’t grow well in central or northern Europe. There were, however, corn varieties very well adapted to short summers in what would become the northeastern United States and southern Canada, grown there by the native peoples for almost 1,000 years. The French Explorer, Jacques Cartier, notably, brought back corn from his explorations on the Saint Lawrence River (1534, 1535 and 1541) that were found to be well adapted to growing in Normandy. 

By the 17th century, corn from North America had been adopted in northern Europe, but only as animal fodder. There was no Antoine-Augustin Parmentier to promote eating corn! Despite recommendations from many authorities, northern Europeans remained very reluctant to use it as human food.

And that continued well into the 20th century. My father, as a Canadian soldier during WWII (he was a truck driver), traveled through several European countries and later regaled us with stories about the war. One of his favorites was how he and his comrades had to show the French, even though they were suffering from a terrible famine at the time, how to prepare and eat corn. They had never thought that the grains they had stored up as fodder for their animals could be cooked or ground into flour! And in England, where he was stationed for almost three years, he and his friends obtained sweet corn seed from Canada and grew a plot of it near their barracks, then held a corn roast. The Brits were amazed to see them eating “pig fodder” and only a few could be convinced to try it. 

Corn is now a fairly staple vegetable in many continental European countries now, including France, although it is not as popular as in North America. Even today, though, it’s still rarely eaten in the UK, except as a salad ingredient.

Jerusalem Artichoke

Jerusalem artichoke tubers
Jerusalem artichoke is a vegetable that many people have heard of, but few have tasted or grown. Photo: Galwaygirl, Wikimedia Commons

I recently wrote an article called The Jerusalem Artichoke: Is Any Other Vegetable Easier to Grow? about this tuberous vegetable and its slow progression to acceptance as a vegetable. I think it can be said that, 500 years after its introduction to Europe from the New World, Jerusalem artichoke is not yet firmly accepted as a vegetable. At least not as an everyday one. Maybe it will slowly gain that status.

Dahlia

Dahlia tubers
The tuberous roots of the dahlia ‘Yellow Gem’ are considered particularly productive and delicious. Photo F. D. Richards, Flickr

And now for a story of failure, as the dahlia (Dahlia spp.) remains largely unknown to foodies even today. However, when it was imported to Spain in 1789, the goal was to introduce it as a vegetable, as the peoples of Mexico had consumed its tubers for millennia. Here again, the public was not at all convinced of the culinary merits of the tubers, but instead quickly fell in love with the beautiful flowers of the plant. In the hands of the hybridizers, more than 20,000 cultivars with the most surprising colors and shapes of bloom were developed. As a result, the dahlia has become the most widely cultivated summer bulb in the world, but few people know that its tubers are not only edible, but often even delicious.

Recently, American hybridizers have started to take an interest in the gustative qualities of dahlia tubers again and are working on developing varieties with large, fleshy and particularly tasty tubers (some the size of grapefruits!) rather just than large, showy flowers.

Who knows? Maybe in a few years, we’ll be seeing dahlia tubers on the shelves of our supermarkets!

Canna

Rhizomes of canna.
In many countries, canna rhizomes are eaten much like potatoes. Photo: edenbrothers.com

Here’s another neglected vegetable that has caught on as an ornamental instead. All parts of the canna are edible: leaves, flowers, stems and even immature seeds. Most popular, however, is its starchy rhizome. Originally native to South and Central America, cannas are now widely cultivated as a vegetable in the Caribbean islands and in the Pacific, not to mention Africa and Asia. In this case, it’s still a case of Northerners being slower on the uptake than Southerners, as many people of the South know cannas well and find them delicious.

Edible Flowers

Pansy flowers in a salad.
There are hundreds of edible flowers, but they are still not yet part of our everyday meals. Photo: Marco Verch, Flickr

Many restaurants today put flowers on our plates, but if you watch people at neighboring tables, you soon realize that very few eat them. Many push them aside or eat around them, either seeing them as a simple garnish or being afraid to taste these novelties. Yet, if restaurants put them on your plate, it’s because you can eat them! 

In fact, many garden flowers are perfectly edible. That includes nasturtiums, daylilies, pansies, marigolds, dendrobiums, monardas, carnations, bachelor’s buttons, hollyhocks, lilacs, tuberous begonias and many more.

The next time you go to a restaurant, I suggest you at least taste the flowers, because many are delicious … and all are rich in vitamins!


These are just a few examples of edible plants that have taken a long time to gain recognition for their culinary qualities. There are dozens more. It’s not that I encourage you to taste just any plant (some plants are indeed poisonous and you should check on any plant’s toxic qualities before tasting it), but it’s a safe bet that some plants in your flower bed that you’ve always considered strictly ornamental will be well worth putting on your plate!

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

14 comments on “The Ever-So-Slow Adoption of New Vegetables

  1. I’ve stored my dahlia and canna bulbs for the winter. Who knew I could have served them up? 🙂

  2. ingerknudsen

    Great and fun article
    Thanks
    Inger Knudsen

  3. Dahlias and cannas, who knew? I have read that North Americans eat only a tiny fraction of the number of vegetable varieties available. We need to branch out.

  4. Margo Margolis

    I search for Canna noodles . Delicious , nutritious and beautiful .

  5. You fooled me, I read the title & saw new hybrids from the seed companies, I do not dislike hybrids, some of them are wonderful (Bananas & beans). I am glad I read the article, historical fact about where a plant comes from & how it got to my table is a good read. I still do not understand why tomatoes & white Potatoes did not come up though the Americas to what is now the Northern USA & Canada. Corn/Maize did, why not tomatoes & potatoes?
    Most nasturtiums &daylilies, you can eat the whole plant, not just the flowers. Nasturtiums young seed pod can be pickled & eaten like or instead of capers. Young Hosta can be eaten like asparagus, Japanese severe it still today.
    You have the best subject matter, but this one is in the top 5%. Thanks.

  6. marianwhit

    This is a wonderful piece, and says a lot about the human animal and its ability to adapt…worth thinking about carefully these days. My great grandfather, David Fairchild, introduced thousands of food (and other) plants to North America, due to the thought that population was exceeding its ability to produce food. This and the threat of accidental introduction of invasive species were his two greatest challenges in his amazing life.

    It is interesting that he overlooked the possible development of native food plants as a source of food (mentioning the paw paw and others only with passing interest), when our flora and fauna once supported huge numbers of people lost to the introduction of diseases exotic to them with the arrival of the colonists.

    So we adopted a mentality that our wild spaces were “worthless” and existed only for transforming into plots of exotic plants and “safe” lawns, abandoning along the way the truth that the native plants are also food and support whole ecologies of animals we like to eat and admire.

    These ecologies are seriously fragmenting in many parts of the world, and while, I would be the last to suggest we ditch our mangos, citrus, and avocados, there needs to be some kind of balance, and greater vigilance/fight against introduced insects and harmful plants that arrive in our country.

    We have already lost key species of trees and shrubs in our landscape, and native species of plants that live in open sunny habitats are under extreme pressure. I hope humans can learn to adapt more quickly, as the mass strewing of exotic species throughout the planet becomes more expensive by the year and is potentiated by climate change…people can argue about the causes of climate change, but in the degradation and permanent alteration of natural areas without serious intervention, we are totally the cause.

    This is written not to provoke guilt or self-hatred, but inspire people to learn more deeply about how biology is changing as a result of our invention of fast modes of transportation and trade never seen in the vast history of the planet. The question of if this is a “good” thing or not is one of the greatest intellectual challenges facing us today, and how to manage the problems that come as a result .

    • How amazing that you are descended from David Fairchild! I guess I’m a bit of a fan! I visited several of his gardens or gardens he influenced in and around Miami: Fairchild Tropical Gardens and The Kampong and I’m sure he was an influence behind the Fruit and Spice Garden… and so many others.

      • marianwhit

        Accident of birth, lol, but certainly an interesting heritage.

  7. Cannas are baffling! I remember them from when I was in high school. They were not popular for long though, or may have become available only from Vietnamese markets in San Jose. I would like to grow them, but do not even know what they are. Even the ornamental cultivars are of questionable lineage. I grow Canna ‘Australia’, which lacks a species name, perhaps because it is so extensively hybridized that no one know who the parents were. Most are known merely as hybrids, and those that are known by species names might have a few species names to choose from. Achira, the canna that was more popularly grown for fat rhizomes, is known both as Canna edulis and Canna discolor, and I really do not know what to believe. One of the cannas here, which might be Canna musifolia, makes nicely plump and soft rhizomes, but they are not quite the same.

  8. Great article. I just learned last year that pansies are edible. Don’t think I want to try them though.

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