The Ecology of Humans – Vegetables


A vegetable is an edible flowering plant part. A healthy human diet mostly comprises vegetables and other plant produce, especially fruit, and a modest amount of seed products. Following is a survey of some vegetables worth knowing.


Globe artichoke is a variety of thistle. The edible portion is the flower bud before blooming.

The naturally occurring variant of the artichoke – the cardoon – is native to the Mediterranean area. The ancient Greeks and Romans ate artichokes.

Artichokes were cultivated in France by the end of the 15th century. The Dutch introduced artichokes to England around that time. Artichokes arrived in United States in the 19th century, brought to Louisiana by French immigrants, and to California by Spanish ones. The Mediterranean continues to be the predominant producer of artichokes.

The heart and bottom part of the leaves are commonly eaten. The stem, which is typically thrown away, is also edible, having a similar taste to the heart. Artichoke tea is popular in Vietnam.

Artichoke is an ample source of dietary fiber, and vitamins B, C, and K. Artichoke is mineral-rich, and extremely abundant in antioxidants. Artichoke engenders healthy gut flora, and so aids digestion; improves liver and gall bladder function; and is good for the cardiovascular system.


Asparagus is a perennial flowering plant with over 200 species in lands ranging from Siberia to southern Africa. The succulent shoots of garden asparagus have been cultivated by the Egyptians at least since 3000 bce. Asparagus was known in ancient Syria and Spain, and popular with the ancient Greeks and Romans. But it drew little notice in medieval Europe. Asparagus has been grown commercially in the United States since the mid-1800s. China is currently the world’s leading producer of this vegetable.

Asparagus is in season from January to June in North America. It is a labor-intensive crop, requiring harvesting by hand.

In certain European countries, white asparagus is popular. This is asparagus denied light. Shoots are covered in soil as they grow, so they do not become green from photosynthesis. Tender white asparagus shoots are less bitter than their more natural green brethren but are also less nutritious.

Asparagus grows in soils too saline for other plants. As it does not uptake soil salt, asparagus is low in sodium.

Asparagus and tomatoes are complementary companions. The tomato plant repels the asparagus beetle. Meanwhile, asparagus repels some root nematodes that prey on tomato plants.

Asparagus offers few calories but is rich in vitamins and minerals. Asparagus is a good source of vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, C, E, K, and rutin. Asparagus offers chromium, copper, folic acid, iron, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, and selenium.

In most people, eating asparagus produces urine with a characteristic smell. This owes to asparagus metabolizing to yield ammonia and various sulfurous products.


The beet is the most intense of vegetables. ~ American author Tom Robbins

The beneficence of beets has been appreciated since antiquity. The roots and leaves have long been used in folk medicine. Hippocrates advocated beet leaves for binding wounds.

Beetroot was a Roman treatment for fever and constipation, among other ills. Beet was also considered an aphrodisiac.

Following the Doctrine of Signatures, the red-purple of beetroot inspired Middle Age physicians to favor beets for blood conditions.

The sea beet (aka sea spinach) begat all cultivated beets. Sea spinach is a perennial that grows along the seashores of North Africa, Europe, and western Asia.

Some beets are grown for their leaves (chard), others for their tuberous roots. Sugar beets are a commercial source of refined sugar, especially in Europe, providing 20% of world sugar production.

Root beets have vitamin B, iron, manganese, magnesium, potassium, and copper. Chard adds vitamins A, C, and K. Both roots and leaves are rich in phytonutrients, notably antioxidants. The nutrients in beetroot regulate cell metabolism and improve cardiovascular function – medieval doctors made a good guess.

Bell Pepper

The bell pepper (aka sweet pepper or simply pepper) is native to Mexico, Central America, and northern South America. Bell peppers were cultivated there for thousands of years before Columbus took seeds back to Spain in 1493. From there they spread throughout the world.

Bell peppers are a botanical fruit considered a vegetable; commonly sold in supermarkets in green, yellow, orange, and red hues.

Though one variety maintains its green color even when fully ripe, red peppers are often simply fully ripened green peppers, with yellow and orange at intermediate stages.

Ripening on the vine engenders sweetness. Green peppers are less sweet and slightly more bitter than yellow or orange peppers. Red bell peppers are the sweetest.

Ripening also enriches the nutrient content. Red peppers have twice as much vitamin C as green ones; the level of vitamin A and lycopene is 9 times higher in red peppers.


Like cauliflower, broccoli is a form of cabbage in which its florets are densely packed in fractal fashion. Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussel sprouts, turnips, radish, and other green leafy vegetables are called cruciferous, and belong in the Brassica family.

Broccoli was beloved by the upper crust of ancient Romans, who consumed it several times in the course of a single banquet.

Native to Italy, broccoli made it to England and America in the 18th century with Italian immigrants. But the bud was slow to bloom in United States: broccoli did not become popular there until the 1920s.

Broccoli is a leafy green superfood: high in protein, rich in vitamins A and B, and antioxidants. The nutrients in broccoli help prevent aging of the eyes and promote cardiovascular health. Broccoli reduces the incidence of stomach disorders, ulcers, and bladder and prostate cancers through its anti-bacterial properties. As a detoxifier, broccoli helps fight the carcinogenic effects of air pollution.

Though broccoli is found year-round in markets, peak season is October through April.

Broccoli is most healthful when cooked as little as possible. Frozen broccoli is just as wholesome as fresh. The stems are as edible and nutritious as the buds.


Nutritionally rich, cabbage has been both a food and medicine throughout history; domesticated in Europe before 1000 bce. Wild species are native to southwestern Europe and the Mediterranean. Beyond its appreciation as a food, cabbage had religious significance to the ancient Egyptians.

The ancient Greeks consumed cabbage as a laxative and drank cabbage juice as an antidote for mushroom poisoning. Ancient Romans ate cabbage for hangovers. 17th century sailors brought cabbage on board to ward off scurvy (vitamin C deficiency).

Cabbage has long served as a subsistence food for the lower classes in many cultures: Ireland and Germany are exemplary. For that reason, the upper class long looked down their noses at cabbage. The unpleasant smell of overcooked cabbage did not help. Nor did the fact that overconsumption promotes bloating and flatulence.

Cabbage is low in calories and high in dietary fiber. Besides its bounty of vitamin C, cabbage is high in vitamins B6, B9, and K, as well as plentiful potassium and manganese.

There are 3 main types of cabbage: green, red/purple and Savoy, which is the crinkle-leafed variety. Savoy cabbage (shown above) is the most fibrous.


The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution. ~ French post-impressionist painter Paul Cezanne, who never painted a carrot

Carrots are a root vegetable. The taproot is most often eaten, though the greens are also tasty.

Carrots are native to Europe and southwest Asia. Carrots naturally have a purple hue. The north Indian carrot is raspberry colored.

Carrots were first grown for their aromatic leaves and seeds. The modern carrot originated in Afghanistan 1,100 years ago. The domestic carrot has been selectively bred to enlarge the taproot and make it less woody.

Orange carrots first appeared in the Netherlands in the 17th century. They were bred to reduce bitterness and improve texture.

Carrots are an excellent source of vitamin A and are rich in antioxidants and minerals.

Carrot juice offers the most nutritious consumption. Only 3% of the carotenoids are released by eating a raw carrot.

So-called “baby carrots” sold in supermarkets are simply carrot pegs, not nubile taproots.


Cauliflower was first grown in the Levant and introduced into Europe long after the fall of the Roman Empire. Brought to Italy toward the end of the 15th century, cauliflower was cultivated across Europe by the close of the 16th century.

Cauliflower is popular as a winter vegetable; historically more highly valued than broccoli because of its elegant, snowy white florets. Cauliflower is a staple of Indian cuisine.

Befitting its place in the cabbage family, cauliflower is nutritionally dense. As with broccoli, the nutritional value of cauliflower is best preserved by not overcooking.


There are 5 elements: earth, air, fire, water, and garlic. ~ French chef Louis Diat

A close relative of the onion, garlic is a most odiferous root vegetable thanks to its high sulfur content. Garlic’s potency has been an inspiration throughout history, inspiring myths and superstitions.

Garlic has been consumed by people for at least 7,000 years. The ancient Egyptians revered garlic, even using it during the mummification process.

In ancient Greece and Rome, garlic was believed to provide strength and vitality. Roman generals planted garlic fields in conquered countries to confer courage on the battlefield. Owing to its smell and association with magic, garlic was often shunned by the Roman aristocracy. But it was eaten by plebeians and fed to slaves and troops. Julius Caesar bucked tradition by consuming garlic with abandon.

Medieval Greek travelers would disguise their travel route by leaving garlic at crossroads so that demons could not follow them. Muhammad wrote of garlic sprouting where the devil trod after being cast out of the Garden of Eden. These myths may have been the source of inspiration for garlic warding off the vampires that arose during the Middle Ages in Transylvania, Romania.

Several traditional European cultures have considered garlic a potent white magic. In the Philippines, folklore tells of garlic having the power to drive away evil spirits.

Certain Buddhist sects in China and Vietnam disfavor garlic as one of the Five Pungent Spices, particularly its supposed power to augment sexual desire and anger. (The Five Pungent Spices are: garlic, onions, leeks, chives, and asafoetida (the gum from the root of ferula, an herb native to the deserts of south-central Asia, and long cultivated in India).)

It took many centuries for garlic to become accepted throughout Europe and Asia. The Spanish brought garlic to the New World in the late 1400s, where it quickly caught on with the indigenous peoples. But immigrants were slow to add the smelly bulb to their larders. It was only in the early 20th century that Italian immigrants transplanted appreciation of garlic to North America.

Garlic was used as antiseptic during the World Wars, especially against gangrene. Garlic has considerable antimicrobial power, both against bacteria and fungi.

Besides bad breath, garlic delivers vitamin B6, C, calcium, manganese, selenium, and phytonutrients. Garlic is beneficial to the cardiovascular system.

Conventional garlic is polluted with chemical fumigates. Organic garlic is preferable.


Kale – a vegetable of crinkly green or purple leaves – was favored by the Greeks in 4th century bce. Kale was one of the most common green vegetables in Europe until the end of the Middle Ages, when it was eclipsed by its spherical cousin, cabbage. Kale was especially popular in Scotland. Kale is a Scottish name.

Kale is still prominent in numerous traditional recipes throughout Europe, and remains in favor in the southern United States, along with a kale cousin: collard greens. A kale variety – kai-lan – is commonly combined with beef dishes in China and Vietnam.

Kale does well in a cold climate. It is more flavorful and tastes sweeter after being exposed to a frost.

Kale is highly nutritious, bestowing ample vitamins A, C, and K, and is rich in calcium and antioxidants.


Lettuce is like conversation – it must be fresh and crisp, so sparkling that you scarcely notice the bitter in it. ~ American writer Charles Dudley Warner

Romaine lettuce

The ancient Egyptians first cultivated lettuce, turning it from a weed – whose seeds were used to produce oil – into a plant grown for its seeds and leaves. Lettuce later spread to the Greeks and Romans, who used it medicinally, espeically to stimulate appetite or induce sleep.

The 16th–18th centuries witnessed a proliferation of lettuce varieties. By the end of the 20th century, lettuce was consumed worldwide. Lettuce has become the most popular leafy salad vegetable.

There are 5 types of lettuce: loose-leaf or simply leaf, romaine/cos, iceberg/crisphead, butterhead, and stem (aka asparagus lettuce). The most widely eaten, leaf lettuce produces crisp leaves arranged on a stalk. Romaine lettuce is excellent in salads and sandwiches, and is most often used in Caesar salads. Butterhead varieties, also known as Boston or Bibb lettuce, and in the UK as “round lettuce,” are generally small, with tender, soft leaves that have a delicate sweet flavor. Stem lettuce is grown for its seedstalk rather than its leaves and is mainly used in Asian dishes.

Iceberg is adapted to northern climates, and is most commonly grown commercially, though it requires the most care. Iceberg is the most popular lettuce in the US, despite having the least flavor and nutritional value owing to its high water content.

Except iceberg, lettuce leaves are a rich source of vitamins A and K, as well as providing calcium, iron, and copper. The leaf spine and ribs provide dietary fiber.


Life is like an onion: you peel off layer after layer and then you find there is nothing in it. ~ American cultural critic James Huneker

Onions are native to central Asia. The history of onions is layered in mystery. They have been highly regarded as a food for at least 7,000 years.

To ancient Egyptians, the onion – with its spherical shape and concentric rings – was the symbol of eternal life. Onions were placed in tombs under the belief that the odor could revive the dead.

Ancient Greeks and Romans prized onions for providing athletic prowess.

During the Middle Ages, onions were used as currency. Tenets might pay their rent in onions, which were a popular gift item.

Selective planting produced the more bulbous bulb that characterizes modern onions. Green onions provide a contrast.

Onions are a biennial or a perennial plant, but typically treated as an annual and harvested after the first growing season.

Onions have antioxidants and other phytochemicals that act to keep inflammation in check and balance cholesterol levels. Onions possess anticancer properties.


The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. ~ English cleric and scholar Thomas Malthus

The white potato is native to the Peruvian Andes. Peruvians domesticated the tuber 10,000 years ago.

The Incan Empire sustained itself on the potato. Francisco Pizarro encountered the empire in 1526, whereupon he went back to Spain and got permission to conquer. Which he did.

The Spanish conquistadors delivered smallpox and returned with treasure. In the long view, the most valuable thing that came back in the hold of Spanish ships was the spud.

The potato landed in Ireland in 1588. Well, almost. A Spanish galleon shipwrecked off the Irish coast in 1588, whereupon it was gleefully looted. Among the cargo were potatoes.

The Irish were squeezed to subsistence existence by their English conquerors at the time. That turned out to be a lucky break for the potato.

The potato belongs to the nightshade family. Nightshades had a nasty reputation. The then-known nightshade varieties – such as Belladonna (deadly nightshade) – assured an unwelcome reception to relatives from distant lands.

Europeans had not eaten tubers before. Potatoes had no mention in the Bible. They cause leprosy and immorality, so the rumors went. Not to mention that they came from an uncivilized and conquered race.

By the time the potato made its way to the emerald isle, conquering Brits had already seized what little readily arable land was available from the native Irish.

Grains didn’t grow well on the rain-soaked rock called Ireland. But spuds did fine in the stingy soil.

The potato is so nearly complete a food that the Irish were able to subsist on it until the mid-1800s. While the continentals thumbed their collective noses, the potato was welcomed by the Irish natives, as it provided sustenance from a tiny plot of land. The tuber became a successful transplant from one conquered race to another.

The potato was a tuber with a destiny, but it took some doing. Prussia’s Frederick the Great put the hard word on the peasants to plant potatoes, as did Catherine the Great in next-door Russia.

King Louis XVI in France showed more cunning. He plotted to plant the potato with prestige. Marie Antoinette took care to put spud-ware in her hair: she adorned her visage with potato flowers.

Louis had a field of potatoes planted in the royal grounds, guarded by his elite security, who were sent home at midnight. This valued regal crop was much whispered about until a lapse in night security noted by those in penury resulted in the poaching of the royal tubers – a feast fit for a king, they hooted over the potatoes they had looted. And so the potato conquered France.

The grains that grew well in southern Europe fared poorly in the soggier north. Had it not been for the potato, political power might not have tilted north from its long southern perch.

England was the last redoubt of potato prejudice, assailed by religious, ecological, and economic arguments.

Bread was long associated by liturgy with the body of Christ. Turning wheat into bread took work: a Protestant virtue.

On the contrary, potatoes – called “bread root” by the British – was food for the lazy, as the Irish amply testified. That was the perspective from London into the 19th century.

In 1798, English reverend Thomas Malthus worried that population growth would preclude inexorable progress toward a utopian society. The potato presented a positive threat to prosperity by its ability to feed a prodigiously reproductive populace.

Population does invariably increase when the means of subsistence increases. The superior power of population is repressed, and the actual population kept equal to the means of subsistence, by misery and vice. ~ Thomas Malthus

God’s will be done, Malthus thought, by virtue of natural restraint, which included repressing peasant population growth by keeping food dear. As easy fodder for the common fool, the spud was Satan sent.

The potato became such an exclusive food of the Irish that the potato blight of 1845–1850 – caused by an oomycete that originated in Mexico – resulted in famine. This so disrupted the Irish economy that mass migration resulted, largely to the United States. The irony is that the potato blight probably arrived from America onboard a ship.

The white potato is often called the Irish potato, so strong is the association between the spud and its enthusiastic adopter.

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A freshly dug potato is 78% water, 18% starch, 2.2% protein, and 0.1% fat. Just beneath the skin lies a healthy number of vitamins and minerals, including iron, calcium, phosphorous, potassium, B complex vitamins, and vitamin C. Potatoes are high in dietary fiber in the form of resistant starch.

Nutritionally, all a potato notably lacks is Vitamin A. Properly prepared, a potato is highly nutritious: unsurpassed in being well-balanced to sustain health.

The potato is an exceptionally productive plant, as a higher proportion of its biomass can be eaten than other food crops.

The sweet potato is a distant relative; a member of the morning glory family. Christopher Columbus brought sweet potatoes back to Europe in the 1490s under the name batatas. The true potato migrated 80 years later under the Andean name: papa. The 2 potatoes would become confused as close relations because of their similar look and subterranean lifestyles.

Deep-fried potatoes are called French fries in the United States. The French call them Belgian fries. Potatoes fried in the French manner was noted by Thomas Jefferson. An 1850s American cookbook mentions “French fried potatoes.”

Deep-frying potatoes in fat at high temperature creates a significant portion of acrylamide. Cigarette smoking is another major source of acrylamide. Acrylamide is a cancer-causing chemical which can also cause nerve damage. Acrylamide is used industrially in plastics and grouts.


Radish is an often sharp-flavored root vegetable in the mustard family, first cultivated in China early in their agricultural history.

The Japanese have long relished the mild white winter radish known as daikon: originally an import from China, as daikon are native to southeast and continental east Asia.

Radishes were domesticated in Europe in pre-Roman times. Radishes are now widely cultivated throughout the world.

Low in calories, radishes are an excellent source of vitamins, especially C, minerals, antioxidants, and dietary fiber.


Seaweed has been a dietary staple in coastal areas, especially Asia, for thousands of years. 25% of the traditional Japanese diet is seaweed.

Though some marine seaweeds are toxic, many are edible. The reverse is true for freshwater algae: most are poisonous.

Among the most popular seaweeds are kelp (brown), dulse (red), arame (black), wakame (green) and kombu (brown). Organic seaweeds are preferable, as chemicals are readily absorbed by algae.

Seaweed is a complete protein, high in dietary fiber, iodine, and calcium. Seaweed is a potent antioxidant and detoxifier.


Spinach as a crop originated in Persia, where it was cultivated by the 4th century. Its appreciation had spread to China via Nepal by the 7th century.

Spinach reached the Mediterranean in the early 9th century, landing first in Sicily. In the centuries that followed, spinach spread throughout Europe.

Spinach has a lengthy taproot, but it is the leaves that are the nutritional treat. Spinach is eaten worldwide, both raw in salads and in cooked cuisine.

Spinach is one of the most nutritious foods, bar none: high in a variety of vitamins (A, B, C, E, K); minerals, most notably iron and calcium; and other phytonutrients.


A world without tomatoes is like a string quartet without violins. ~ American author Laurie Colwin

Like its cousin the potato, the tomato arose in the Andes, and its initial acceptance in northern Europe was stymied by the superstition that plants in the nightshade family could be anything but toxic.

Though a berry fruit, the tomato is considered a vegetable. Tomatoes had become popular with the Mexica and other indigenous people of Mesoamerica by 500 bce.

Columbus may have brought the tomato back to Europe in 1493, or the tomato may have been on the victory voyage of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, who savagely destroyed the Mexica civilization in 1521. Either way, the tomato made its way to Europe courtesy of the Spanish empire, which radiated the red fruit throughout the Caribbean, and took it to the Philippines, from whence it spread to Asia. By that time, the tomato had established itself in Mediterranean cuisine, thanks to easy acclimation to the climate there.

Ketchup was a 17th-century concoction of the Chinese that squirted its way to the United States via the Malay states (Malaysia and Singapore), by way of Britain. Chinese ketchup was a fish-based sauce, used either as a condiment or for cooking. The Brits deemed ketchup exotic, finding that it perked up otherwise bland British cuisine, including roasts and fried foods.

The early 19th century found ketchup on American dinner tables. The Yanks transformed ketchup from its fish base to a tomato-based sauce that was sweetened, soured with vinegar, and spiced with cloves, allspice, nutmeg, and ginger. In 1876, F. & J. Heinz brought “blessed relief for mother and the other women in the household” with its branded tomato ketchup.

The tomato has suffered from commercialism, which bred out the flavor in favor of firmness and a uniform red when ripened. This is true of most supermarket produce, which has been bred for a long shelf life at the expense of all else.

The only tasty tomatoes left are heirlooms and other varieties not prized for their good looks. There are 7,500 different tomato cultivars.

Tomatoes saucily offer vitamins A, C, and K, potassium, magnesium, antioxidants, and other phytonutrients, including lycopene when cooked.