The Diaspora of Food
Isn't it crazy to think that everything we eat or use that comes from plants at one time grew completely wild? That's right, rice, corn, beans, cotton, oranges, tomatoes everything came from somewhere on the earth and grew there wild. It's somewhat hard to believe. Then, in the past several thousand years, humans selected the ones they liked best and found most useful and began selecting the best varieties of each. For example, I have this friend down in Costa Rica that recently planted 2000 rambutan trees (they are like a hairy lychee). He waited for four years until they all began to bear fruit and tasted the fruit from all of them. He selected the five trees he thought had the best fruit and then cut down 1,995 of them. He then grafted from those five best trees and refilled the plantation with the selected varieties. This type of plant selection went on all over the world and civilizations improved their favorite foods and plants. These different varieties of plants were selected for many reasons, ranging from the fewest seeds to the sweetest pulp, from the fluffiest cotton bunches to the brightest colored oranges. Varieties were selected for a whole range of reasons. Today, unfortunately, one of the most important traits plant growers strive for is shelf life, which is often more important than even taste.
The word diaspora means the dispersion or migration from a country or region and usually refers to the leaving of an ethnic group from their homeland. Here we are talking about different plants, their geographical origins and how and why they moved around the world. The most common movements happened as cultures began spreading to different areas of the world, during which time they often brought their favorite plants with them. Its interesting as well as fun to go on plant walks in port towns where it is evident that sailors from all over the world have briefly stopped in and spread seeds of their favorite foods. Let's follow a few great examples of this movement.
The ancient Polynesians over 1000 years ago would set sail out into the open ocean on their long canoes seeking out new lands. Along with the necessities needed on the journey, such as food and fresh water, they would always pack shoots, roots, cuttings and seeds of plants for food, cordage, medicine, fabric, containers and all of life's vital needs. This included food bearing plants such as taro, banana, coconut and breadfruit, bamboo for building, turmeric and noni for healing, and kava kava for recreational use. Their relationship with these plants was deep. Bringing them along made inhabiting these far away lands more hospitable.
Another interesting example of plant diaspora is in the many plants that moved with the African slaves into the Caribbean Islands and eastern coast of Central America. In Costa Rica, for example, as you descend into the Caribbean lowlands from San Jose, the people are mostly descendants of Jamaica and Barbados and the plants and markets are full of foods brought with the slave trade from Africa via the Caribbean and then brought them to Costa Rica. These plants include such delights as breadfruit, ackee and tropical yams. They are rarely seen in other parts of Costa Rica outside of this region. Captain William Bligh, on his famous voyage of the "Bounty", brought many of these foods to the Caribbean islands, with the intent of being able to feed slaves cheapily and easily.
Like the fascinating movement of people and cultures around the world and their indoctrination into new lands, foods also go through trials in their new locales. Some have thrived and spread quickly into the landscape, and others would perish and not survive in these new conditions. It is a fun exercise to follow plants back to their origin and learn about their journeys and introductions into new lands. You can start with coffee and its birthplace in .. Ethiopia. â˜º