Botany of the Farmers Market

Every market-goer is using botanical skills. We analyze whether we’re looking at tomatoes or tomatillos, cucumbers or zucchini, whether we should get the leafy kale or the very green chard. We learn to recognize to different fruits, roots, flowers, stems—even if we don’t know the specifics of plant anatomy. Botanists, or plant scientists, do the same thing in our studies, examining differences between plants and the parts of plants to learn about plant taxonomy (or relationships), plant ecology (where plants live and how populations change), and basic plant biology (how plants develop, grow, and reproduce).  For our Botany of the market week, we looked at the market as botanists would.

Using Botany 101 skills at the farmer's market.
Using Botany 101 skills at the farmer’s market.

We examined produce from all over the world, with the help of a lot of plant materials donated by the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences Conservatory (go visit! it’s open to visitors on weekdays!). We looked at plants sold at our market and unfamiliar plants common at markets elsewhere—like yucca root or dragon fruits. We also saw the leaves and stems of plants that produce food we only see a bit of at our grocery stores: cinnamon leaves (we use the bark for spice) or black pepper vine (we grind up the dried fruits).

(Left) Produce plants eaten here and all over the world. Can you identify these? (Right) Dragon fruit, the berry of a cactus.
(Left) Produce plants eaten here and all over the world. Can you identify these? (Right) Dragon fruit, the berry of a cactus.

We saw on a map that the plants that are grown in Minnesota and sold at our market are mostly from cooler climates all over the world, while plants not grown here tend to be from warmer climates.

Mohamed Yakub, a plant evolutionary biologist, checks the map for the origin of his favorite foods.
Mohamed Yakub, a plant evolutionary biologist, checks the map for the origin of his favorite foods.

We also examined the relationships of the plants we eat. Tomatoes and potatoes are very closely related—they are both the same genus Solanum, but just different species. We eat different parts of those plants. Peppers are in the same family, but different species and genera (two different genus groups). We saw an example of a group of very different looking produce that are actually all the same species: broccoli, kale, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower are all from a single wild species Brassica oleracea.

An example of plant evolutionary relationships. How related are the plants you’re eating today?
An example of plant evolutionary relationships. How related are the plants you’re eating today? (photos from Wikimedia commons)

When we eat all those Brassica oleracea cultivars, we’re often eating different parts of the plant. Sometimes different plant parts offer different benefits to the eater: we can get more starch often from storage anatomical features: modified stems, like potatoes which are tubers , or roots. We get sweet sugars often from fruits: berries like oranges or drupes like plums. We also eat plant parts that we don’t expect: we eat the developing flowers of broccoli and the leaves of onions and the petioles or leaf stalks of celery.

table
We looked at all the plant parts under microscopes: we examined roots we eat from all over the world and fruits we snack on.
(Clockwise from top left) Peppers are a fruit (a berry), onions are modified leaves, carrots are a storage root, and bamboo shoots are the very young developing shoots of the bamboo grass.
(Clockwise from top left) Peppers are a fruit (a berry), onions are modified leaves, carrots are a storage root, and bamboo shoots are the very young developing shoots of the bamboo grass.

We also learned how we use terms in everyday life that are different than how botanists would describe plants and plant parts. We could see under a microscope that raspberries are actually a bunch of connected fruits (actually fleshy and single-seeded, called drupes) and strawberries show their fruits as the tiny seed-like structure (fruits called achenes) on the outside of the red flesh. Tomatoes and chile peppers are also true berries!

Some true berries and raspberries, which are actually a collection of a different kind of fruit--a bunch of drupes.
Some true berries and raspberries, which are actually a collection of a different kind of fruit–a bunch of drupes.

Next time you’re at the grocery store or market, see if you can identify all the different plant parts we eat: roots, stems, leaves, fruits, and seeds.

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