Where Did the Plants on Your Plate Originate?
For many families with small children, Discovery Peak in the World of Wonders Children’s Garden is a sensory garden with herbs to touch and smell. It also provides the opportunity to see how our favorite fruits and vegetables grow. It may come as a surprise that when WOW opened in 2006, Discovery Peak was planned with a global twist. Small mosaics of seafaring vessels on the pathways still guide guests through the continents, representing the idea that the search for plants encouraged global exploration. Each section was planted with fruits, vegetables, herbs, fiber crops, and other plants of economic importance throughout history.
In 2017, we revisited the idea of plants driving exploration with the educational theme of “Marco Polo & the Explorers: Tales of Trees, Travel & Trade”. On Discovery Peak, families found the plants that were written into Marco Polo’s story, including melons, grain, rice, and rhubarb.
We expanded this global theme into our Passport Gardens, each designed to represent one of the world’s biomes: an American woodland, Russian taiga, South American tropical rainforest, African savanna, Australian desert, and a Mediterranean chaparral. Signage interpreted the stories of historical figures to highlight the economic, medicinal, and cultural impacts of plant collection and documentation. These plants were not “discovered” as new to the world; many were already important food and medicine crops to indigenous peoples. It was important for guests to understand how these plants were already used before the arrival of Europeans, and then how the introduction of the plants to new regions forever changed the economies, cuisines, and cultures of the world. Guests traveled on the well-known late 15th century expedition of Christopher Columbus, and the 18th century voyages around the world with Captain James Cook and botanist Sir Joseph Banks. Further exploration highlighted the medicinal plant discoveries of Ibn al-Baitar in northern Africa in the 13th century, and the importance of botanical documentation with Marianne North’s paintings from six continents in the 19th century.
Our Youth Educators learned quickly that our most engaging activity table for parents was themed around the geographic origin of the food crops. We asked families to match a food to the continent from which it originated on a large map and many of the participating adults found it difficult to match the origin correctly. While as children we learned the phrase “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue”, as adults we may not remember the trade of spices was one of the driving factors for this voyage. We also may not often consider how our meals would be different if some plants were never introduced to other parts of the world. Many foods couldn’t be found in Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia before the introduction of plants from what are now North and South America.
Do you know which key pizza ingredient was not originally grown in Italy? Or which popular produce known as economically and culturally tied to regions of South America actually first grew in other parts of the world? Take the quiz below for the answers to these questions, and to test your geographic knowledge on the origins of the food on your dinner plate!
Play the Game
Grab a pen, paper, and family members to compete against, and then scroll down through each picture and try to identify on which continent the plant originated. Find the answers at the bottom of the page.
First things first! Can everyone in your group identify the continents? Make sure all of the kids in your family can point to where we live.
North America- Green
South America- Yellow
We’ll make it easy and leave Antarctica off the list. (Although you can give yourself a bonus if you can name ANY plants that grow there.)
1. Where did bananas first grow?
2. Where did blueberries first grow?
3. Where did chocolate first grow?
4. Where did cinnamon first grow?
5. Where did corn first grow?
6. Where did garlic first grow?
7. Where did lemons and limes first grow?
8. Where did macadamia nuts first grow?
9. Where did pineapples first grow?
10. Where did peppers first grow?
11. Where did potatoes first grow?
12. Where did strawberries first grow?
13. Where did sugarcane first grow?
14. Where did tomatoes first grow?
Check your Answers:
- Where did blueberries first grow? North America
- Where did chocolate first grow? Central America & South America
- Where did cinnamon first grow? Asia (Southeast, South, East Asia—the “spice islands”)
- Where did corn first grow? North America
- Where did garlic first grow? Asia (Central)
- Where did lemons and limes first grow? Asia (South & East)
- Where did macadamia nuts first grow? Australia
- Where did peaches first grow? Asia (East)
- Where did pineapples first grow? South America
- Where did peppers first grow? North (Central) & South America
- Where did potatoes first grow? South America
- Where did strawberries first grow? North America & South America
- Where did sugarcane first grow? Southeast Asia
- Where did tomatoes first grow? South America
There you have it! Were you surprised that tomato (and pineapple) couldn’t be on a pizza before Europeans sailed to the Americas? Or that that the plants that give you your morning coffee originated in Africa and not South America?
Learn more on the International Center tor Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) website. This resource provides an interactive map with plant origins, as well as information on how these crops have influenced diets and economies worldwide throughout history and today.
The fascinating story of how sweet potatoes may have found their way into Europe and Asia before the introduction of other plants from the Americas can also be found in this 2013 NPR story.