Origin of Species of Corn, Potatoes, and Tomatoes – and Some Other Interesting History

By Jan Cashman • Posted on January, 7th 2012

By Jan Cashman 12/14/11

Ever wonder where the vegetables we eat and grow in our gardens came from?   The plants had to originate somewhere.  Thousands of years ago when people simply gathered wild fruits and vegetables for food, these plants were found naturally growing in the wild.  Then, some 11,000 years ago, people began to domesticate these wild fruits and vegetables and eventually improve upon them.

Corn

Corn is thought to have originated somewhere in Mexico, though the wild form is extinct.  As far as we know, the native people then domesticated corn, which became the most important cultivated plant in ancient America, used by the native North Americans and Incas in the Andes of South America.  Columbus brought corn from North America to Europe. 

The botanical name for corn, which you will recognize if you read seed catalogs, is Zea mays.   In North America, another word for corn is “maize”.  (The word “corn” has different meanings in different countries—in England the word means wheat, in Ireland and Scotland, barley or oats.)  There are many subspecies of corn, the most familiar of which are dent (the mostly commonly cultivated, also called ‘field corn’), flint corn (Indian corn with colored kernels), popcorn, and sweet corn.  Corn has a huge diversity of uses besides human food including livestock feed, ethanol, and in making whiskey, cosmetics, and bioplastics.

All the corn grown commercially in the United States is hybridized.  But open-pollinated (i.e. not a hybrid) varieties of sweet corn seed such as Fisher’s Earliest, developed by Ken Fisher of Belgrade, for vegetable gardens are available from some garden seed companies. 

Potatoes

Potatoes were first cultivated in the mountainous regions of Peru and Bolivia 3000 to 7000 years ago, where they are thought to have originated.  The Incas learned to dehydrate and mash potatoes into a substance that would store for years called chunu, therefore, potatoes became a staple crop there. 

The British naturalist, Darwin, during his scientific expedition to Patagonia in the 1830’s, wrote about the potato: “It is remarkable that the same plant should be found on the sterile mountains of central Chile, where a drop of rain does not fall for more than six months, and within the damp forests of the southern islands.” In other words, the potato was adaptable and easy to grow. Potatoes are also highly nutritious, containing vitamin C and B vitamins, potassium, besides carbohydrates and fiber.

In 1570, the Spanish brought the potato from Peru to Spain.   Europeans were leery of its ugly appearance and bland taste so, at first, the potato was used for livestock feed, but eventually, because of food shortages, it gained popularity as a palatable vegetable.   When the European diet expanded to include potatoes, farmers were able to produce more nutritious food on smaller plots of land, which helped European birth rates and population to increase.  Even though they originated in the Western Hemisphere, potatoes were not grown and eaten by the North American colonists until 1620 when they were sent over from England.  Thomas Jefferson made them popular by serving them to his guests at the White House. 

Montana has a history of raising potatoes commercially.  Gallatin, Beaverhead, and Madison Counties are important producers of high quality certified seed potatoes for several reasons:  Our cool climate has fewer insects which carry diseases.  Our short season produces a small potato, best sold for seed.  Our hard winters kill off viruses in the soil.   And, we are isolated from other potato growing areas which helps keep diseases out.   Montana State University has been a big factor in establishing and carrying out the detailed inspection process needed to certify seed potatoes.  Farm families such as the Schutters and Weidenaars in the close-by communities of Churchill-Amsterdam-Manhattan have grown certified seed potatoes, mostly Russett Burbank, for as many as four generations.

Tomatoes

Tomatoes are native to South America, in fact, several species are still found growing wild in the Andes.  Brought to Mexico, tomatoes were domesticated and cultivated there by 500 BC.  It is thought that the first cultivated tomato was small and yellow.  Columbus and/or Cortez brought tomatoes to Europe and the Spanish explorers took them throughout the world.    The tomato became popular in Spain by the early 17th century, where it thrived in the Mediterranean climate and became a staple food.    When first introduced in England at the end of the 16th Century, it was thought to be poisonous.  (The tomato belongs to the nightshade family—some plants in this family are poisonous.)  Finally, by the mid-18th century, the tomato had gained acceptance and was widely eaten in England and the North American colonies.

Studies have shown that Italians live longer on their diet which includes plenty of tomatoes, olive oil, and red wine.  The nutritious tomato is low in calories but high in vitamins A and C, potassium, and the valuable antioxidant lycopene.  Older tomato cultivars (heirlooms) are not always smooth-skinned but may have bumps or ribs and are not always red, but sometimes yellow, orange, pink, purple, or black.  These old cultivars have the delicious tomato flavor you cannot find in commercially bred varieties purchased in the grocery store.  Stupice, a favorite of ours from Czechoslovakia, or Belii Naliv, a John Austin pick from Russia are two good heirloom tomatoes to try in your garden.

The Western Hemisphere is not only the origin of corn, potatoes, and tomatoes, but also squash and pumpkins.  Carrots, probably purple at first, were from Afghanistan.   Beans are thought to have been found in both the Western Hemisphere and the Mid-East. Onions have been cultivated in Asia for thousands of years.   Wild onions were used by the Native Americans.   Broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage didn’t occur in nature at all, but were bred from kale.  

So, when you plant your vegetable garden next spring, think about where those seeds came from and the history that has gone into getting them to you.