Tag Archives: eudicot

Tarragon’s family tree

Tarragon is one of many Artemisia species with a storied past.  Jeanne introduces you to her favorite genus. 

If you love eating French food, and especially if you love cooking it, when you see a tarragon bush, inevitably you think of the French quartet fines herbes:  fresh parsley, chives, tarragon and chervil.  You may reminisce about a perfect (or broken) Béarnaise sauce.  These days when I pass my tarragon plant I vow to actually use it, as we’ve neglected it this year.  I also think of sagebrush.  And absinthe, martinis, and Shakespeare. And weeds, malaria, and hippies.  I attribute this motley mental association to tarragon’s membership in my favorite genus, Artemisia, a large group in the composite (sunflower) family, Asteraceae, with a rich history. Continue reading

The holidays mean persimmons

Hachiya persimmons, ripening

Hachiya persimmons, ripening

Jeanne discusses the biology behind the strange winter beauty of persimmon trees and demystifies why eating one before its time is an unpleasant experience.

The holiday seasons of my adult life increasingly include persimmons.  The ‘hachiya’ persimmons on my mother-in-law’s tree in California ripen around Christmas, beginning a conversation about what to do with them, and when they start showing up in the grocery store in late fall, I’m invariably drawn to the plump orange fruits with their handsome green calyxes.  I’ve now learned that persimmons, especially dried, are an important part of many new year celebrations throughout Asia, where there are thousands of persimmon varieties, but I only became acquainted with them when I moved from Denver to go to college in the Bay Area, where some of the Asian varieties are grown.  The bright orange plum-to-apple-sized persimmon fruits stay on the tree until well after the leaves drop in the autumn.  I paid little attention to the persimmon trees on campus—tall specimens of the ‘hachiya’ variety of Asian Diospyros kaki—until the leaves fell to reveal the scraggly branches laden with the orange orbs. Continue reading

The most political vegetables: A whirlwind tour of the edible crucifers

arugula

Jeanne provides an overview of the cultivated brassicas.

Two days after the re-election of Barack Obama, the arugula at the farmer’s market reminded me of John Schwenkler’s excellent commentary from the 2008 campaign season on political trends in food choices, taking issue with Republican opposition to arugula. Arugula was the subject of a gaffe by then-candidate Obama.  Afterward the vegetable joined lattes in the pantheon of foodstuffs entirely in custody of liberals, according to some pundits on the political right.

broccoli

Arugula was not the only, or even the most recent, brassica (a species from the mustard family, Brassicaceae) to be dragged into the American political fray.  Marion Nestle has a great commentary on two memorable instances when broccoli entered national political discourse, first when George H. W. Bush disavowed the vegetable, and then recently when Antonin Scalia turned the vegetable into a symbol of government imperialism during the Supreme Court’s consideration of the Affordable Care Act.

cabbage

In July 1948 Truman called both houses of Congress back from recess for what is now known as the Turnip Day Session, starting on, as he said, “what we in Missouri call Turnip Day,” the 25th of July.  The designation comes from an old Missouri saying: “On the 25th of July, sow your turnips, wet or dry.”  During World War I sauerkraut in the United States for a time became “Liberty cabbage,” a marketing predecessor to the Freedom Fries in the George W. Bush-era congressional cafeteria.  The re-labeling came from American manufacturers of sauerkraut, the German name for the lacto-fermented salted cabbage popular in much of Europe and Asia, who worried that Americans would reject a product with a German name (incidentally, though smelly, making your own sauerkraut is easy and yields satisfying results).

watercress

The relative frequency of brassica appearances in political discourse reflects their abundance in the modern grocery cornucopia.  In previous posts we discussed the numerous varieties of Brassica oleracea (including kale, collard greens, Chinese broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower) and other Brassica species (turnips, rutabagas, rapini, napa cabbage, tatsoi, bok choy, mizuna, mustard greens, mustard seeds, mustard or canola oil).  This post completes our whirlwind tour of Brassicaceae food plant diversity. Continue reading

The extraordinary diversity of Brassica oleracea

Before the caterpillars attacked: Red Russian kale seedlings

Jeanne turns her frustration with caterpillars in her garden into an exploration of the botany behind an extraordinary species:  Brassica oleracea.

White cabbage butterflies (Lepidoptera: Pieris rapae) decimated the fall kale crop in our garden.  To be fair, the abundant green caterpillars did not consume the entire blade of every leaf.  The remaining nibbled leaves, however, in my husband’s view, no longer resembled food so much as a caterpillar farm that would be tedious to turn into food.  He ripped out the caterpillar farm, threw it on the compost bin, and replaced it with lettuce.  Unlike kale, which is in the mustard family (Brassicaceae), lettuce is in the sunflower family (Asteraceae) and is therefore not even remotely attractive to white cabbage butterflies.

Caterpillar damage on young green curly kale in the garden at Monticello

I was tempted to save the hole-riddled leaves from their compost fate, in part because I know that the munching of the caterpillars actually increased the foliar concentration of some of the compounds that contribute to kale’s nutritious reputation, and also because plummeting autumn temperatures impart an extraordinary sweetness to kale and the other cruciferous vegetables that are all actually varieties of the same species, Brassica oleracea: cauliflower, cabbage, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, Chinese broccoli, and collard greens.  The details of the chemical consequences of caterpillar consumption will soon get a post all their own.  This post is dedicated to the botany and evolutionary biology behind the amazing diversity of B. oleracea. Continue reading

Varieties of the pepper experience

Chili, black pepper, white pepper, and Sichuan pepper

Black pepper, pink peppercorns, chili pepper, Sichuan pepper – except for being “hot,” these spices have as little in common as Sergeant Pepper and Pepper Potts.  Their homelands are scattered across the world, and they were spread through distinct trade routes.  They are not closely related; they belong to families about as far apart as possible on the phylogenetic tree below.  They even aim their heat at different sensory receptors in your mouth. Continue reading

The Stone fruits of summer

The scent of ripening peaches spurs Katherine’s musings on the botany
of stone fruits

Fragrant peaches ripening on window sills and countertops pull me right back into the heart of my childhood summers.  They always arrived in a huge box from Georgia, sent by my grandmother in the hope of drawing my parents back to their native state. Her other lures included Vidalia onions in April and Claxton fruitcakes in November, but peaches were definitely her best shot. The peaches were gorgeous, and their ripe flavor was incredibly complex and vivid, but their peak was ephemeral.  After my sister and I had spread them all out on newspapers, the whole sprawling array had to be checked at least two times a day and sorted by ripeness. Peaches were never allowed to touch each other.  On some hot days, peach tending took on the urgency of triage, with fruits passing from ripe to “sharp” to downright alcoholic in one long afternoon.

Peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots, and cherries are sometimes called stone fruits because of their pits, or stones.  Along with almonds, they are all in the genus Prunus which belongs to the Rose family – Rosaceae.  Several other familiar fruits come from the rose family but are not stone fruits. Continue reading

Do peaches belong in the fridge?

Some people just cannot bring themselves to refrigerate peaches. Storing peaches lovingly at room temperature is said to coax out the best in peach scent, flavor, and texture. But treating peaches this way does take a lot of time and vigilance, as I detail elsewhere. Reliable authorities – peach packing houses and state extension agencies – recommend refrigerating peaches once they become ripe, but some people would rather risk losing fruit to rot than let them get cold. But does it matter? Can peaches be stored in the fridge to slow their decline without compromising their peak? Continue reading