Digital History>eXplorations>Columbus & the Columbian Exchange>The Columbian Exchange>Origins of Plants


This map shows the sites of domestication for a number of crops.
Places where crops were initially domesticated are called centres of origin
This image is from the USDA.

Sources for more information:

Origins of Selected Plants
apples "The center of diversity of the genus Malus is the eastern Turkey, southwestern Russia region of Asia Minor. Apples were probably improved through selection over a period of thousands of years by early farmers. Alexander the Great is credited with finding dwarfed apples in Asia Minor in 300 BC; those he brought back to Greece may well have been the progenitors of dwarfing rootstocks."
from Dr. Mark Rieger, University of Georgia
avocados "The avocado (Persia americana) apparently originated in Central America, where it was cultivated as many as 7,000 years ago. It was grown some 5,000 years ago in Mexico and, but the time of Christopher Columbus, had become a food as far south as Peru, where it is called palta. Legend has it that Hernando Cortes found avocados flourishing around what is now Mexico City in 1519. The English word "avocado" is derived from the Aztec ahuacatl, which the Spaniards passed along transliterated as aguacate."
from Cambridge World History of Food, Kenneth F. Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas, Cambridge University Press:Cambridge, 2000, Volume Two, p. 1725.

"Edible bananas originated in the Indo-Malaysian region reaching to northern Australia. They were known only by hearsay in the Mediterranean region in the 3rd Century B.C., and are believed to have been first carried to Europe in the 10th Century A.D. Early in the 16th Century, Portuguese mariners transported the plant from the West African coast to South America. The types found in cultivation in the Pacific have been traced to eastern Indonesia from where they spread to the Marquesas and by stages to Hawaii."
from Purdue University

(source of Chocolate)
"The first people known to have made chocolate were the ancient cultures of Mexico and Central America. These people, including the Maya and Aztec, mixed ground cacao seeds with various seasonings to make a spicy, frothy drink. Later, the Spanish conquistadors brought the seeds back home to Spain, where new recipes were created."
from the Field Museum
coffee first consumed in the 9th century, when it was discovered in the highlands of Ethiopia
grapes "There are in all between forty and fifty species of true grape-vines, one native to Europe, twelve to Asia, and thirty-five to N. America. The genus Vitis has a much longer history than man. The earliest representative yet discovered is the fossil species V. sezonnensis, which flourished in the subtropical forests of what is now France during the Lower Eocene epoch."
from Ethnobotanical Leaflets International Web Journal
guavas "The guava has been cultivated and distributed by man, by birds, and sundry 4-footed animals for so long that its place of origin is uncertain, but it is believed to be an area extending from southern Mexico into or through Central America. It is common throughout all warm areas of tropical America and in the West Indies (since 1526), the Bahamas, Bermuda and southern Florida where it was reportedly introduced in 1847 and was common over more than half the State by 1886."
from Purdue University
lemons "...[the lemon's] original home may have been in the north of India. It only reached the Mediterranean towards the end of the 1st century AD, ... The Arabs seem to have been largely responsible for the spread of lemon cultivation in the Mediterranean region...Arab traders also spread the lemon eastward to China..."
from The Oxford Companion to Food, by Alan Davidson, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1999, p. 449.
olives "Olive leaf fossils have been found in Pliocene deposits at Mongardino in Italy. Fossilised remains have been discovered in strata from the Upper Paleolithic at the Relilai snail hatchery in North Africa, and pieces of wild olive trees and stones have been uncovered in excavations of the Chalcolithic period and the Bronze Age in Spain. The existence of the olive tree therefore dates back to the twelfth millennium BC. The wild olive tree originated in Asia Minor where it is extremely abundant and grows in thick forests. It appears to have spread from Syria to Greece via Anatolia (De Candolle, 1883) although other hypotheses point to lower Egypt, Nubia, Ethiopia, the Atlas Mountains or certain areas of Europe as its source area."
from the International Olive Council
papayas "Though the exact area of origin is unknown, the papaya is believed native to tropical America, perhaps in southern Mexico and neighboring Central America. It is recorded that seeds were taken to Panama and then the Dominican Republic before 1525 and cultivation spread to warm elevations throughout South and Central America, southern Mexico, the West Indies and Bahamas, and to Bermuda in 1616. Spaniards carried seeds to the Philippines about 1550 and the papaya traveled from there to Malacca and India. Seeds were sent from India to Naples in 1626."
from Purdue University
peaches "Peaches were probably the first fruit crop domesticated in China about 4000 years ago. Cultivars grown today derive largely from ecotypes native to southern China, an area with climate similar to that of the southeastern USA, a major peach growing region. Peaches were moved to Persia (Iran) along silk trading routes. In fact, the epithet persica denotes Persia, which is where Europeans thought peaches originated. Greeks and especially Romans spread the peach throughout Europe and England starting in 300-400 BC."
from Dr. Mark Rieger, University of Georgia
beans "Faba beans probably originated in the Near East in late Neolithic times. By the Bronze Age they had spread at least to Northern Italy and have been found in several lakeside dwellings in Switzerland. The earliest findings in Britain date back to the Iron Age at Glastonbury. They were widely cultivated in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome."
from the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA)
corn (maize) domesticated in Mesoamerica as long ago as 3600 B.C. in what is now central Mexico and then spread throughout the American continents.
melons "The culture of the watermelon goes back to prehistoric times. It was grown by the ancient Egyptians, as revealed by pictures that survive to the present. Old names in Arabic, Berber, Sanskrit, Spanish, and Sardinian are all unrelated, indicating great antiquity of culture in lands about the Mediterranean and east as far as India. The long and general culture of the watermelon from North Africa to middle Asia led to the view that it was of Asiatic origin, although it had never been found wild in Asia or elsewhere. Finally, however, about a hundred years ago, the great missionary-explorer, David Livingstone, settled the question of its origin. He found large tracts in central Africa literally covered with watermelons growing truly wild."
from "Our Vegetable Travelers" by Victor R. Boswell, National Geographic Magazine, 1949, Volume 96(2).
sweet potatoes  
chicle (Source of Chewing Gum)  
barley "Barley has a very debatable origin. There are two different thoughts as to where barley was originally cultivated. J.R Hardin says that barley cultivation originated in Egypt. There is evidence of barley grains found in pits and pyramids of Egypt over 5000 years ago. There has also been ancient glyphs or pictorials showing barley dating back to 3000 BC. There have also been references to barley and beer making in ancient Egyptian and Sumerian writings. The other thought is that barley was originally cultivated in China around 1500-2000 BC. This is evident by ancient pottery found depicting the end of the famine by having barley fall out of the sky"
from Ethnobotanical Leaflets International Web Journal
Kentucky bluegrass  
oats " from about 1000 BC in Central Europe. However, the Greeks and Romans of classical times were unimpressed, regarding oats as coarse, barbarian fare; and the Romans used them mainly as animal fodder, but did foster the growing of oats in Britain, where they were to become important as a food for human beings."
from The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson, Oxford University:Oxford, 1999, p. 547.
sugar and sugar cane "Sugar cane originated in New Guinea where it has been known since about 6000 BC. From about 1000 BC its cultivation gradually spread along human migration routes to Southeast Asia and India and east into the Pacific. It is thought to have hybridised with wild sugar canes of India and China, to produce the 'thin' canes. It spread westwards to the Mediterranean between 600-1400 AD. Arabs were responsible for much of its spread as they took it to Egypt around 640 AD, during their conquests. They carried it with them as they advanced around the Mediterranean. Sugar cane spread by this means to Syria, Cyprus, and Crete, eventually reaching Spain around 715 AD."
from Plant Cultures: Exploring Plants and People


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