Plums

(Prunus domestica) One of the first fruits domesticated in Europe.

Plums may be one of the first fruits domesticated in Europe. Remains of our modern European plum (Prunus domestica) from neolithic times (over 5000 years ago) are only found around human settlements. Subspecies of Prunus domestica include damsons and bullaces, prunes, Victoria plums, greengages, and mirabelle plums.

Cherry plums (Prunus cerasifera) are the ancestor of our modern plums, and they are still found growing wild in places. They are native to Southeast Europe and Western Asia.

Several different species of plums were domesticated in China in ancient times. North America has a dozen or so species of wild plum.

Pears

(Pyrus communis) The common European pear.

The common European pear (Pyrus communis) is one of over thirty species of Pyrus which originated in the Chinese section of the Tien Shan mountain range and spread outward from there. There is evidence that pears were picked from wild trees in Europe long before they were cultivated by the Greeks and Romans 2000 years ago. Several Roman authors described grafting pears to propagate the best varieties. The Chinese were grafting their own kinds of pears around 4000 years ago.

There are over 40 varieties of European pears cultivated, but just four of them account for 95% of production world wide.

Apples

(Malus domestica) The most “English” fruit has an exotic past.

All of our modern apple varieties (Malus domestica) come from a wild tree called Malus sieversii. Whole forests of these trees grew in the western foot hills of the Tien Shan mountains, around what is now Kazakhstan. These early apple trees were very diverse, but it seems that many of them had large sweet fruit which were especially attractive to bears who ate them and spread their seeds around. Some of these sweet apples were carried by people along the ancient Silk Road – a trade route linking China with the West from over 2000 years ago up until the 1450s.

The seeds of apples don’t breed true – but out of all the different trees that resulted from wild seedlings the Greeks and Romans learned how to clone the best by grafting them onto other rootstocks. The Romans brought some of their favourites to Britain.

Rhubarb

Popular Yorkshire “fruit”, once a medicine

Rhubarb (Rheum x hybridum(?)) was probably first grown in northern China and was used as medicine there at least 2000 years ago. It was traded into Europe about 500 years ago, but only used for medicine at first.

Maize

(Zea mays) Sweet corn, pop corn, “Indian corn”

Maize (Zea mays) was domesticated in southern Mexico about 10 000 years ago. Domesticated maize is very different from its wild parent, and it seems to have been deliberately bred over many years to have desirable properties. It gradually spread into South America, then into North America, finally reaching the east coast of the US about 1000 years ago. After Columbus, maize spread into Europe and beyond. Now it produces the largest weight of any grain crop world-wide.

Leeks

(Allium ampeloprasum)

Leeks (Allium ampeloprasum) were probably cultivated in Egypt by 4000 years ago. Wild leeks grow around the Mediterranean region.

Onions and Shallots

(Allium cepa)

Onions & Shallots (Allium cepa) Onions seem to have been used first in Central Asia, and to have spread to China by at least 7000 years ago. The ancient Egyptians revered onions. Bits of onion were found in the eye sockets of the 3000 year old mummy of Rameses IV. The Romans carried onions around Europe two thousand years ago.