Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Where do corn, vanilla and chili peppers come from? A botanical journey to Mesoamerica. by Jorge Bogantes Montero, volunteer

Published in the U.S. Botanic Garden's Newsletter"As the Garden Grows", Volume 7, Number 2/ Spring 2009

Traditionally Mesoamerica has been considered a cultural region that goes from central Mexico to northwestern Costa Rica, thus including Mexico and most of Central America. More recently, the concept of Mesoamerica has been used by many to denote the region from central Mexico to Panama. The former range mentioned is more often referred to by anthropologists and archeologists where as the latter is being widely used by conservationists and international conservation organizations that operate in the region. Mesoamerica has seen the splendor and demise of some of the most outstanding ancient civilizations in the world, the Mayas and the Aztecs. The region is still the homeland of important indigenous populations with ever-amazing cultures but with deep socio-economic problems as well.

In the Pre-Columbian times agriculture was a very important part of the Mesoamerican culture. Plenty of worldwide economically important plant species were domesticated in this region of the world some thousands of years ago by using original agricultural methods. It is thought that agriculture was much more sophisticated in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and the South American Andes than in contemporary Europe. This agricultural development could only be compared to that of China.

Mesoamerica is a splendid land of dazzling active volcanoes, rugged topography, highland plateaus, some of the world’s most complex cave systems, lakes, coastal mangrove forests, the world’s second largest coral reef barrier, vast rainforests, tropical dry forests, pine forests, cloud forests, and 7% of the world’s biodiversity in only 0.5% of the world’s territory! This land has been called home by up to 80 indigenous ethnic groups for millennia. Mexico and Guatemala are currently the countries with the largest indigenous population in the region. Their use of local plants for culinary, medicinal and spiritual purposes is still an important part of their culture.

At least 60 cultivated plants species are native to Mesoamerica making it one of the most important regions of the world in terms of the number of native plants of global or local economic importance. Just take a look at your diet and you’ll see the importance of Mesoamerican plants in your life. The carb boost given by the corn cereal in the morning, the peppers adding spice and good taste to your meals, the delicious refried beans in the burritos, a self-indulgent vanilla ice cream in a hot summer day, the rich dark chocolate as an excellent excuse to strengthen your heart with flavonols, the cotton fabric in your apparel, the vitamin C-rich tomatoes, which are curiously the staple of Italian food! and the oily avocados in your guacamole snacks, just to name a few! All these plants have been harvested for thousands of years; the numerous varieties are the result of complex processes of human selection and horticultural methods that have created plant crops with optimal characteristics. Let’s just put it this way, ancient biotechnology added to modern biotechnology have resulted in the creation of hundreds and thousands of cultivars (races or varieties of plants) per specie.

With a total harvest of up to 300 tonnes only in 2007, the U.S. leads the world’s corn production. Even though corn seeds and its flour are very important nutritional constituents used in a who’s who of food items, corn has also got innovative uses such as biodegradable plastic and as biofuel. Corn (Zea mays) is only known as a cultivated plant there’s no such thing as a wild corn plant since the plant can’t live without human nurturing. The origins of corn are still a hot topic of debate within the scientific community but it is certainly known that it was domesticated somewhere in Mesoamerica. The Popol Vuh, which is basically the Mayan bible, suggests that human flesh and blood were made out of corn. Corn-based tortillas and tamales with all their local versions are a quintessence of the Mesoamerican diet. There are more than 250 types of corn native to Latin America (known as corn “races”) with colors ranging from white and yellow to red and purple, the greatest variety of corn races is found in Mexico and the Andes in South America. The hard and starchy corn types from temperate regions of North America and other parts of the world comprise the bulk of the world’s commercial harvest, but the numerous local corn races in Latin American have remarkable local importance. The modern biotechnological advances have skyrocketed the creation of a legion of corn hybrids and genetically engineered corn organisms.

Peppers and chili peppers (Capsicum spp.) (in Spanish ajíes, chiles or pimientos) were the first spice encountered by Spaniards in the Americas. There are wild populations of peppers growing from the southern U.S. to Colombia but it is thought that the domestication might have occurred in Mexico, according to archeological research findings. There are many pepper varieties and at least four cultivated species with different shapes, sizes and spiciness. Both spicy and non-spicy peppers belong to Capsicum genus. The pungent flavor of chili peppers is given by a chemical compound called capsaicin which has been found to possess anticarcinogenic properties. Peppers also have a high content of vitamin C. The cultivation of peppers expanded rapidly in Europe and Africa when dried peppers imported from Latin America had viable seeds. Chilies were introduced to Asia in the 1500’s and were taken up by the local southern Asian cuisines almost straight away. Peppers are nowadays a significant ingredient in Thai, Sri Lankan, Korean and Indian food; India is the world’s largest producer of chili peppers and the producer of some of the spiciest chili peppers in the world.

Like peppers, tomatoes (Lycopersicon esculentum) are another member of the Nightshade plant family (Solanaceae). There are wild species of tomatoes in the Pacific coast of South America. Nevertheless, there’s no evidence of tomato farming before the arrival of the Spaniards in that region. But, there is evidence of the use of tomato in Mexico before that time. So far, tomatoes have reached a greater economic significance outside of its native range, being an important crop in Europe and the U.S. It has been cultivated in the Mediterranean region since the 1500’s where it easily adapted to the local climatic conditions. When first discovered the Spanish conquistadores found tomatoes similar to the European apple, in Italian they are actually called pomodoro (golden apple).

Mexico has had an evident cultural influence in the modern U.S. culture, particularly when it comes to food. An evidence of that influence is clearly seen by the widespread consumption of beans in the U.S., a quick meal burrito at lunch break or the classical chili con carne says it all! Common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) are found from Mexico to Argentina, there are hundreds of Common bean cultivars, including black beans, kidney beans, navy beans, pinto beans, and so on. It is thought that beans were first domesticated in Mesoamerica and the Andes some 7,000 years ago. Bean seeds (what we usually eat) have to be cooked or toasted to soften the cotyledons (the two seed parts that form one bean) and to eliminate some toxic compounds. Beans contain both protein (22%) and carbohydrates (60%) some fats and minerals. Couldn’t get any healthier, could it?

Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) and Cocoa (Theobroma cacao) are both native to and were firstly domesticated in Mesoamerica. For more information on these species the USBG has temporary exhibitions and discovery carts, these are a must-see for anyone who wants to learn lots of fun and interesting facts about this wonderful species.

The Totonac Indians of southern Mexico were the first peoples to discover and use vanilla, quite a culinary accomplishment! They used it in combination with cocoa in beverages. They were the world’s main vanilla producers until the mid-19th century when the majority of the commercial production switched to the Old World tropics as a result of the discovery of hand pollination techniques. Archeological evidence shows that cocoa was first used in Mesoamerica more than 2,500 years ago by the Olmecs and the Mayans. The Spaniards did not discover cocoa until the 1500’s when it became quite the hype between the European upper classes. The Spanish tried to keep it a secret but they couldn’t make it. By the mid-1600’s chocolate became a sensation across Europe, especially in England and the Netherlands. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that the modern chocolate bar was invented in Switzerland.

Moreover, another Mesoamerican plant is so utterly important in the world that you wear and sleep on its seed’s fibers, that’s right! Cotton. Cotton is the world’s most essential and commonly used source of fiber for fabric. Even though there are at least four species that produce commercial cotton in the world, the Upland Cotton or Mexican Cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) is the most important species to the world’s cotton production. Cultivation of cotton dates back 5,500 years to Pre-Columbian Mexico. Today, some indigenous ethnic groups in the region still use cotton in their beautiful traditional outfits and handicrafts. A trip to the Mayan Guatemalan highlands is definitely a must-see for ethnic textile lovers! The cotton shrub is considered a tetraploid plant (meaning that it has four sets of chromosomes) but it is quite unknown where and how this genetic modification took place. There are more than 1,000 commercial cotton cultivars used in countries like China, the U.S., Brazil and India which differ in the fiber quality and its resistance to plagues.

Who doesn’t like some tortilla chips with a good guacamole dip? It’s just as Mesoamerican as food can get! Isn’t it? When the Spaniards arrived to Latin America avocados (Persea americana) were used throughout the region from Mexico to Venezuela and Bolivia. It is not clear where its domestication took place originally, although it is thought that it could have occurred in separate places throughout Latin America. However, the oldest clues of avocado use date back 10,000 years according to findings in an archeological site in Mexico. There are three major groups or races of avocados: Mexican, Guatemalan and West Indian. Even so, many of the commercial avocados are hybrids. Avocados are rich in nutritive oils that are easily digested; the older the fruit gets the more oils it develops. Furthermore, the fruit contains proteins, vitamins A and C and the sugar content is rather low. About 95% of the avocados grown in California and 80% of the avocados consumed worldwide are Hass avocados, a cultivar developed and patented by a Californian postman and horticulture amateur Rudolph Hass in the early 1900’s. It is not known what variety of seed produced the original Hass mother tree but it became a more than a billion-dollar business solely in the U.S.!

Even chewing gum comes from Mesoamerica! The latex of the Chicle or Sapodilla trees (Manilkara zapota and Manilkara chicle) was chewed by the Mayans thousands of years ago. The first commercialization of chicle to make the chartbuster chewing gum was done in the late 1800’s by an enterprising New Yorker whose name was Thomas Adams, later on it would become an all time success. The natural gum was largely replaced by synthetic rubber which was more convenient for large-scale producers. Natural chewing gum is currently starting to come back with the new appreciation of organic and fair trade products. Verve Inc. the manufacturers of Glee Gum make chewing gum using natural sapodilla tree-made gum base which they buy from local producers in Central America.

Other contributions of Mesoamerica to the world’s useful plants are allspice (Pimenta dioica), the Tequila agave (Agave tequilana), Amaranth (Amaranthus cruentus and A. hypochondriacus) and squashes (Cucurbita moschata, C. pepo, C. argyrosperma and C. ficifolia). But these are just the most popular ones, there are dozens of other fascinating plant species that have a strictly local use and are rarely known to outsiders. If you want to venture more into the Mesoamerican useful plants, food is always the best start. Go to a Mexican, salvadorean or other Central American grocery store or restaurant and discover how a plethora of plant products and byproducts have been the companion of people and their kitchens since ancient times.

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