A Brief History of Vegetables - Part 2

The cabbage and similar greens are members of the Cruciferae family, most of which are edible. Many of the cabbage family are derived from a wild ancestor, the colewort [Brassica oleracea], which is still common in many parts of Europe, particularly near coastal areas. Many early writers and old medieval books on cookery mention 'coles' but it is likely that these were not truly 'cultivated' varietals. Another member of the family, cauliflower, was not cultivated in England until the 17th century, for example, yet the Greeks and Romans knew about it.

A rather unpalatable and spindly rooted wild carrot can be found in Britain's countryside but we probably owe it to Flemish refugees from the period of Elizabeth I bringing the succulent cultivated variety to our culinary doorstep, although the vegetable has been cultivated for more than a couple of thousand years.

There is a wild celery which can be found dotted around Britain's countryside, particularly in damp and marshy areas, which is believed to be the original celery brought over by the Romans. Although that particlar plant can be eaten, it is pretty tough and has an unpleasant smell. Over the years careful selection of cultivated varieties has left us with the more palatable celery offerings we now find on our supermarket shelves.

By all accounts our leeks began their history in distant corners of the Mediterranean and East, with signs of cultivation in ancient Southern Europe.

You may have heard of the Wild Lettuce [Lactuta scariola] which can be found wild in Britain's hedgerows and waysides, well our modern lettuces are believed to be derived from this original and pretty unpalatable antecedant which is thought to have originated in antiquity in a region from Central and Eastern Asia to Southern Europe. Lettuce [L. sativa] is thought to have been introduced in the early 16th century into England, but is believed to have been cultivated by the Greeks and Romans, and thought to have been introduced from the West into China.

Tracing the progress of the onion across our culinary world is, like several of our common vegetables, not easy to be precise about though it possibly originated in the Indian sub-continent and is said not to have been present, or was only rare, in the Americas until the arrival of Europeans. There are not particularly palatable varieties of wild onion, however the ancient Egyptians grew onions and included the plant in their religious activities. The Greeks and Romans are thought to have acquired the plant through their contact with Egypt and from that point onions spread across Europe.

Parsnip in its various forms - a wild parsnip is found in Britain's hedgerows and meadows - has been around for a long time. It was to be found in Roman gardens, there apparently being Pompeiian frescoes depicting the root, while Dioscorides mentions it. Gerard [1595] mentions that an 'excellent bread' was sometimes made from the root, although others are rather more circumspect about the bread quality.

Peas have been around Britain's shores since Norman times, and by the time of Henry VIII varietal quality was a major consideration in their consumption - although it wasn't until the reign of Elizabeth I that really good eating quality peas were introduced [from Holland].

Quite where the pea originates from is uncertain but it IS an ancient crop. The Greeks cultivated peas, and peas have been found in Swiss Bronze Age remains. There is a 'field pea' which occurs naturally in neighbouring Italy - this may be the original variety from which all other derive - but there are few or no native wild varieties lurking round the outback of Asia. The pea appears to have arrived in China through Western Asia and there seems to be no ancient use of the pea in Egyptian or Indian cultures.

If you are interested in edible wild plants and their possible uses [many were used in old times as crops], take a look at the Wild Food School microsite [opens in a new window].


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