Tag Archives: phylogeny

Hollies, Yerba maté, and the botany of caffeine

Yerba maté, the popular herbal tea from South America, is a species of holly. It’s also caffeinated, a characteristic shared by only a small number of other plants.

CRW_1675

English holly. Photo by K. Bills

Along with conifer trees and mistletoe, hollies are a botanical hallmark of the winter holiday season in Europe and the United States. Most hollies are dense evergreen shrubs or small trees and produce beautiful red fruits that stay on the plant through the cold winter months. Sprays of the dark green foliage grace festive decorations, and wild and cultivated hollies punctuate spare winter landscapes. Especially popular in winter, too, are warm beverages. One of the most popular, at least in South America but increasingly elsewhere, is yerba maté. It is a seasonally appropriate choice because the maté plant is a holly. Unlike the decorative hollies, usually American (Ilex opaca) or English (Ilex aquifolium) holly, maté (Ilex paraguariensis) is caffeinated. This puts it in rare company, not only among hollies, but among all plants. Continue reading

Cranberries, blueberries, and huckleberries, oh my! And lingonberries, billberries…

Flavorful and juicy thought it may be, Thanksgiving turkey, for me, is merely the vehicle for the real star of the meal: cranberry sauce. And cranberry is in the same genus as blueberries, lingonberries, huckleberries, and billberries. And they all make their own pectin. Let us give thanks this holiday season for Vaccinium.

Cranberry sauce is my favorite staple item at our big holiday dinners. Long-prized by indigenous North Americans, cranberries would have been in the diet of those Native Americans participating in the first Thanksgiving if not part of the meal itself. When the fresh cranberries hit the stores in late fall, we stock up. Cranberries, however, are not the only member of their genus that is perennially in our freezers or in our annual diet: blueberries, many huckleberries, lingonberries, and billberries are all in the large genus Vaccinium (family Ericaceae, order Ericales). Continue reading

Making ratatouille like a botanist

The story of the nightshades is usually told as a tale of European explorers, New World agriculturalists, and a wary bunch of Old World eaters.  But what about the birds?  And the goji berries?  Jeanne and Katherine introduce you to the Solanaceae family and walk you through the botany to be observed while making ratatouille, the classic French collision of Eastern and Western nightshades.

Can you imagine Italian cuisine without tomatoes? The Irish without potatoes? Chinese cuisine without spicy, fruity chiles?  Such was the case prior to the discovery of the New World nightshades (family Solanaceae) by sixteenth-century Spanish explorers.  And they couldn’t help but run into them.  Solanaceae is a huge family, with over 100 genera and nearly 2500 species, most of which are in Central and South America. Continue reading

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

Greens: why we eat the leaves that we do

Jeanne reveals which branches of the evolutionary tree of plants bear edible leaves and speculates about why that is.

Giant coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) fronds dwarf me

Giant coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) fronds dwarf me

Most of the 300,000 + plant species have leaves, and the function of all of them is to perform photosynthesis.  They are the ultimate source for all of the oxygen and food for the rest of the food chain and help regulate the global carbon and water cycles.  They are also nutrition superstars.  To figure out why greens are good for you and whether all leaves are equal in this regard, we need to take quick look at global leaf structural variability and broad evolutionary patterns in the species that make their way onto our tables. Continue reading

A brief history of gluten

Victory with creating a gluten-free quick bread recipe inspires Jeanne to give you a brief primer on the evolutionary history of gluten within the grass family. 

We were perhaps a little too enthusiastic this fall in our apple picking at a local orchard and our acquisition of interesting squash at our farmer’s markets.  Our freezer now contains many bags of applesauce and squash puree.  We must now “do something,” as we say, with all of it, meaning use the purees as ingredients.  Lately I’ve been working on incorporating the purees into nutritious (low sugar, high protein, whole grain) quick breads.  On my doctor’s recommendation, that quick bread also needs to be gluten-free.  Increasing appearances of the phrase “gluten free” on restaurant menus and product labels are noble efforts to accommodate the needs of people who have celiac disease or other dietary sensitivities to gluten.  Baking without gluten is a challenge, as gluten is what gives wheat dough its elasticity and allows yeasted wheat bread to rise.  The internet makes gluten-free baking more accessible by the day, but I haven’t yet found someone else’s recipe that really does what I want, so I’ve been working on my own.  I’m fairly pleased with the latest result (below) and thought I would use the occasion to give you a brief evolutionary history of gluten and the botanical family that makes it:  the grasses. Continue reading

Have a salad and relax: the Dipsacales trio

The three edibles from the order Dipsacales (mâche, elderberry and valerian) inadvertently make their way into Jeanne’s evening.

As I added some dried valerian (Valeriana officinalis) root to my bedtime tea mixture, I realized that in doing so I had inadvertently incorporated the only three common edibles from the order Dipsacales into my evening:  elder, mâche, and valerian.  These three make the Dipsacales a lonely but interesting and delicious branch of the asterid group of eudicots (see our phylogeny page for phylogenetic contextualization of the asterids):

Orders in the asterids, Dipsacales in red

Orders with edibles in the asterids, Dipsacales in red

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