Lately, there’s been quite a big movement against genetically modified foods (GMOs). And while the process of genetically modifying certain food is rather recent, humans have been playing around with the genetics for centuries. The difference is that they did it by means that required much more time and patience. As far as human agriculture goes, everyone’s been trying to grow the bigger, better and more nutricious source of food and that’s how selective breeding allowed us to enjoy the fruits (literally) of a hundreds of years of labor.
Some fruits and vegetables featured here show a variety of plants that could be considered a great-great-great-great-grandpa of the modern day equivalent. While others, like the banana we know today, are relatively new to our cuisine.
Image credits: christies
A crop of a 17th-century painting by Giovanni Stanchi shows watermelons in a completely different form than we’re familiar with. The artwork which was painted between 1645 and 1672, depicts watermelons haing swirly shapes embedded in six triangular pie-shaped pieces, as well as large seeds and the inside that is dominated by the white flesh that most of us consider inedible nowadays.
Image credits: Scott Ehardt
Over time, humans bred watermelons to be much more appealing and mouth-watering. Nowadays, we can easily get watermelons that are perfectly ripe, bright red and juicy and there are even varieties that are seedless. Those are produced by crossing diploid and tetraploid lines of watermelon, with the resulting seeds producing sterile triploid plants.
Image credits: geneticliteracyproject
Banana’s ancestors date back as far as 10,000 to 6,500 BP as researches found numerous phytoliths of bananas at the Kuk Swamp archaeological site. But before banana was what it is today, a creamy, sweet fruit (well, technically a berry), it went through a lot of changes through selective breeding. One of the biggest differences in the wild variety of the fruit is large seeds that take up most of the fruit. Quite difficult to imagine eating that, right?
Image credits: Christian Dembowski
The fruit that we now call banana has one of the most tumultuous histories ever. The mass production of bananas started only in 1834 when the fruit was moved to the Caribbean. However, at the beginning of the previous century the massively produced bananas were struck by a crisis, a fungus infection that started wiping out entire plantations. That’s when researchers developed a banana that was able to withstand the fungus infection, the Giant Cavendish, which is what we currently know as bananas.
Image credits: Nepenthes
Throughout history, eggplants had a variety of shapes and sizes before appearing on our dinner tables as round, fleshy vegetables. Some of the earliest versions of eggplant were recorded in ancient China. The first generations of plants used to have spines on the place where the plant’s stem connects to the flowers, which quite an extreme look, when you think of it. As bad-ass as the wild eggplant might look it also lacks the size and other preferable qualities of the modern day equivalent.
Image credits: lchunt
The modern day eggplant is big, long and meaty (haha!). With the limited number of seeds and plenty of flesh, the eggplant shows just how wonderful selective breeding can be!
Image credits: geneticliteracyproject
The plant which the modern carrot was derived from, was originally whitish/ivory coloured root. The original carrots domesticated in Central Asia ca. 900 CE were purple and yellow and writings in classical Greek and Roman times have references to edible white roots, however it is unknown if they were parsnips, carrots or both. The grandpa-carrot had a long long long way to go before it turned into an orange, non-forked stick.
Image credits: Tim Parkinson
Thankfully, farmers managed to domesticate the wild, forked root into the delicious orange vegetables that nowadays can grow up to 6.245 metre(s), according to Guinness World Records. Wow!
Image credits: geneticliteracyproject
Grandpa-corn is perhaps the best example of just how far you can with years and years of selective breeding. The teosinte domesticated in 7,000 BC tasted like very dry raw potato, was barely larger than 19mm and only had 8 known varieties. It was local to only central America and had very hard kernels.
Image credits: Rosana Prada
What we eat now seems like the completely different plant compared to corn’s ancestor. It’s bred into a variety of colors, is about a 1000 times bigger and is grown in 69 countries. Oh, and did I mention it’s delicious when steamed?
Image credits: James Kennedy
Peach, on the other hand, is one of those fruit that doesn’t seem to have changed much since its wild form. According to historical findings, the first peaches were cultivated back in 6,000BC in Zhejiang Province of China. Proper domesticated peaches first appeared in Japan, roughly 1,200 years later. They were already similar the modern cultivated forms with larger and more compressed stones. Some people may think that it came from the desert quandong (Santalum acuminatum), but this species, though they also bare fruit and are considered relative to the wild peach, is actually a distantly related flowering plant.
Image credits: Anthony Starks
The peaches we eat today are actually a species cultivated in Persia (modern-day Iran) that was transported to Europe. Today’s peaches can come in yellow and white fresh variants with a little bit of red in either type, and are divided into clingstones and freestones (meaning whether the flesh sticks to the stone or not).
Image credits: Kulac
Brassica oleracea is the great-grandpa of such vegetables as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and more. The uncultivated form is called wild cabbage and it gives us a pretty good idea on how what we now know as a cabbage looked like thousands of years ago before it was started to be cultivated. The history of the domesticated plant is unknown before Greek and Roman times, but scholars of that age have left plenty of records to confirm that it was a well-established garden vegetable back then. You can still spot the wild cabbage growing near limestone sea cliffs as it has high tolerance for salt and lime.
Image credits: Bayer CropScience UK
Compared to its ancestor, the modern day cabbage is much fleshier and fuller, providing a much bigger amount of food from a single plant. The modern cabbage stems from Brassica oleracea Capitata group.
Image credits: plutonature333
Before we get into wild tomatoes, just throwing this out there that a tomato is not a vegetable, but rather a fruit. Always wanted to use this bit of knowledge!
Anyhow, the tomatoes we have today are drastically different from the ones they used to be before humans domesticated them. Wild tomatoes are more reminiscent of berries rather than fruit as they are extremely small in size. The species of wild tomatoes known as Solanum pimpinellifolium, or more commonly speaking the currant tomato, still exist to this day in Ecuador and Peru and are also naturalized in other places around the globe. They are edible, but not really cultivated to be eaten. Instead they are used for science in developing hybrid species and supplementing the gene pool of the more common tomato species.
Image credits: Tony
The tomatoes we eat today are comparatively bigger than the wild ones. Stores generally offer a variety of tomatoes, ranging from cherry (Solanum lycopersicum var. cerasiforme) and plum tomato to the Giant Heirloom tomato that’s a bit larger than a human fist. Thought all of them can be eaten raw or as part of a salad, some are specifically bread for sauces (like the plum tomato).