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The most basic biological human dependency on plants is for food (staple crops) and drink (beer, wine, spirits, tea, coffee, cola) – these have been the traditional source of energy and fluids needed to support life. This web site examines several aspects of this dependency:

The article food places food consumption within the context of sustainability and daily living. The article Agraria investigates the cultural context of the emergence of civilization that was part of the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. Origins of agriculture discusses the various centres of domestication out of which modern civilizations were formed; also the relative advantages and disadvantages of the hunter-gatherer, pastoralist, farming, and industrial modes of existence. The article on staple crops is an historical account of the foods that have supported human lives since the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. Plants for people a general list of plants of economic significance. In addition, there are descriptions of individual plants of global economic importance in the section on economic plants.

Plants for people

For a listing of current botanical names see the Royal Horticultural Society web site, and for plant common names in non-English languages and scripts see the Multilingual Multiscripted Plant Name Database.


This article provides a summary account of the plants that have been of major importance to humanity throughout history. It is a global record that begins with the staple plants that comprised the sustenance diet, and first domesticated plants of independent centres of the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. It then moves on to the second-order plants of history that were not the staples necessary for survival but which were nevertheless considered highly desirable or ‘luxury’ possessions.

These are plants that have made a major contribution to the kitchen, science, the arts, the global economy, the ravages of war, the injustices of slave plantations, and other significant historical events that have forged human history. Unsurprisingly, most are economically important food plants.

Globally there are about 3000 known food plants of which about 150 have been extensively cultivated and traded. In spite of this apparent variety about 90% of the human diet consists of only about 15 species, and of these, only four (wheat, rice, corn, and potatoes) make up over 60% of the world’s food supply. We now rarely eat wild food, possibly a few berries, greens, and field mushrooms, and it is likely that hunter-gatherers enjoyed a more variable diet – though one not so simply acquired.

Agriculture allowed the mass storage of food that provided the surplus energy needed to feed the surge in population made possible by the settled lifestyle. It was agriculture that set humanity on a path dominated by cultural, rather than biological, evolution.

Of the commoner internationally and commercially available species there are listed:  46 herbs, 33 spices, 80 fruits, 31 nuts, 83 leafy green vegetables, 34 pod vegetables, 30 bulb and stem vegetables, 54 root vegetables, and edible marine plants.

These are the plants that have supported humanity throughout history. They have gradually become more widely available internationally, the lists reflecting the perspective of European colonial expansion as a phase of cultivated plant globalization during the Age of Plants which lasted from about 1550 to 1950.

Though our passion for ornamental plants, international cuisine, and other plant uses will lead to further global plant exchange, this historical phase of international discovery and dispersal is now drawing to a close with the future likely to see an increasing artificial synthesis of desired plant products.

The following lists are a conservative compilation of the major internationally available plants. It could easily be extended with tropical and more out-of-the-way species and the plants used by indigenous peoples. The reader is directed to Wikipedia articles for more extensive lists.

Plant statistics

Number in world
Edible and widely traded
In today's human diet
Proportion that are cereals today
Major cereals
Grasses with large grains
Cerealsin regional agriculture
15 (90% human diet)
60% (wheat, rice, corn, potatoes)
56 : SW Asia Mediterr. 32, E Asia 6, C America 5, Sahara 4, N America 4, Australia 2, S America 2, W Europe 1
Near East - wheat, barley; East Asia - rice; C & S America - maize; Africa - Sorghum


Current archaeological evidence indicates that agricultural societies arose independently in, at most, nine areas of the world: Near Eastern Mesopotamia (9,500 BP) and spreading to Egypt, Mesoamerica including Central Mexico (9,000 BP), the E USA (4,500 BP), Southern and Central Andes (7,000 BP), Southern China (Yangtze) (8,500 BP) and North China (Huang Ho or Yellow River) (7,900 BP), and Sub-Saharan Africa inc. Sahel, tropical West Africa, and Ethiopia (4,000 BP), and New Guinea.

Most of these cultures were based on nutritious cereal grasses whose seed could be easily stored: wheat in Europe, rice in Asia, maize in the Americas, and sorghum in Africa.

Staple foods

Staple foods are plants that make up the major plant components of the human diet. They provide most of the crucial energy, macronutrients, fat, carbohydrate, and protein, along with a range of general nutrients. They are usually in plentiful supply, relatively cheap, and eaten at least once a day – and they often became popular because they are easily stored.

The suite of plant staples varies by geographic region.

Modern Global Production – Ten Staples

World prod’n (million metric tons): highest producing countries and their output. FAO data 2015 & 2016.

Maize (Corn)         873       United States    354
Rice                         738       China                  204
Wheat                    671        China                 122
Potatoes               365        China                    96
Cassava                 269        Nigeria                47
Soybeans              241        United States     91
Sweet potatoes  108         China                   71
Yams                     59.5         Nigeria               36
Sorghum              57.0        United States    10
Plantain               37.2        Uganda                 9

Early domestication Southwest Asia – Fertile Crescent

Cereals – wheat (Triticum spp. & cvs), barley (Hordeum spp. & cvs), rye, maize (Zea mays & cvs), rice (Oryza sativa & cvs)
Root crops – potatoes (Solanum tuberosum & cvs), yams, taro, arrowroot, cassava.
Legumes (pulses) – peas (pea- Pisum sativum, chick pea – Cicer arietinum), beans (faba bean, Vicia faba).
Fruits – olive (Olea europaea), grape (Vitis vinifera), date (Phoenix dactylifera), fig (Ficus carica), pomegranate (Punica granatum)

Eight founder crops
Eight Neolithic founder crops – the first known domesticated plants in the world – have been isolated in the Fertile Crescent of Southwest Asia. It was these plants that have formed the core of today’s temperate crops including those of ancient India, Persia and North Africa.

Emmer wheatTriticum dicoccum (descended from the wild T. dicoccoides)
Einkorn wheatTriticum monococcum, (descended from the wild T. boeoticum)
Hulled BarleyHordeum vulgare/H. sativum (descended from the wild H. spontaneum)
LentilLens culinaris
PeaPisum sativum
ChickpeaCicer arietinum
Bitter VeitchVicia ervilia
FlaxLinum usitatissimum (a clothing plant)

Early domestication Sub-Saharan Africa

Cereals –  Sorghum, Great millet – Sorghum bicolor, Finger Millet – Eleusine coracana, T’ef – Eragrostis tef, Pearl millet – Cenchrus americanus, Rice – Oryza glaberrima, Fonio – Digitaria exilis
Root vegetables: Enset – Ensete ventricosum, White yam – Dioscorea rotundata, Yellow yam – Dioscorea cayenensis
Greens: Hyacinth bean – Lablab purpureus, Cowpea – Vigna subterranea. Tender tree leaves of Moringa – Moringa oleifera, Baobab – Adansonia digitata


There has been an historical acceleration in the sharing and redistribution of plants of economic value over history that is now levelling off. The most famous of the trade routes of antiquity was the overland Silk Road with sectors that may have been in operation for around 4000 years, most notably as a connection between the Roman and Han Empires.

The increasing global access to economically significant plants is largely a consequence of the European colonization and maritime trade networks that connected local trading communities into a global economy.  This began with the Columbean exchange that took place across the Atlantic, between Europe and the Americas during the Age of Discovery, but it also extended to the islands referred to at that time as the East Indies.

Dating plant introductions is a tricky business complicated by the fact that introduction was not necessarily followed by widespread commercial adoption. The following lists are offered as a general guide only.

Eurasia exchange – Silk Road

Connecting Mediterranean, Middle East, India, C Asia, China, Far East

From Persia & beyond: dates, pistachios, pears, grapes, walnuts
From C Asia: apples, almonds, cucumbers, onions, quinces, peaches
From India: cotton, pepper, spinach, spices
From China: anise, cassia, ginger, mulberry, tea, rhubarb

also: apricots, carrots, chives, figs, radishes, liquorice, saffron, melons, pomegranates

From the Old World & Asia to the New World

From Europe to the Americas

Cabbage – Brassica oleracea Capitata Group
Citrus fruits
Grapes – Vits vinifera cvs
Lettuce – Lactuca sativa cvs
Okra – Solanum tuberosum cvs
Onion – Allium spp. & cvs
Olives – Olea europaea

Sugar – Saccharum spp. & cvs
Wheat – Triticum spp. & cvs

From Africa to the Americas

Bananas – Solanum tuberosum cvs
Rice – Solanum tuberosum cvs

From New World to Old World

Food crops obtained by the Old World from the New World of South America and the Caribbean during the Columbean exchange included:

From N Chile and W Andes to Mexico, then Europe and the world.

Potato – Solanum tuberosum cvs
Tomato – Solanum lycopersicum

From N America to Europe and the world

Jerusalem artichoke – Helianthus tuberosus
Sweet potato – Ipomoea batatas

From Mexico & Caribbean to Europe & world

Avocado – Persea americana
Bean (runner) – Phaseolus coccineus cvs
Bean (haricot) – Phaseolus vulgaris cvs
Cashew – Anacardium occidentale
Cassava – Manihot esculenta
Chili peppers (capsicum) – Capsicum spp. & cvs
Cocoa – Theobroma cacao
Corn (maize) – Zea mays
French beans – Phaseolus vulgaris
Paw-Paw, Papaya – Carica papaya
Peanut – Arachis hypogaea
Pineapple – Ananas comosus
Pumpkin – Cucurbita pepo cvs
Squash – Cucurbita argyrosperma, C. ficifolia, C. maxima, C. moschata, C. pepo
Sunflower – Helianthus annuus
Vanilla – Vanilla planifolia

From the Old & New Worlds to the East Indies

In the 17th-19th centuries from the Americas to Indonesia and thence to New Guinea came sweet potato, cassava, and tobacco. This was followed, after 1870, by a second wave of European introductions that included:

coffee – Ethiopoa to Arabia, Turkey and the world

From Roman Empire to Britain & the Neo-Europes

It is likely that many of the Mediterranean culinary herbs and food plants now growing in the temperate and warm climate former British colonies and Neo-Europes (like North America, Australia, and New Zealand) originated from Britain.

We know the Romans used plants and flowers for many purposes. Apart from flavourings and food they were used for decoration, religious rites, medicine, making honey, garlands, and perfume. Many were brought to Britain during the Roman occupation. The popularity of various herbs changed over time, and the sourcing of several of these plants to the Roman Empire has been challenged, but the following working list gives a general idea of Roman plant introduction and its impact on plant geography and floristics.

Most of the non-native plants in Australia came from Britain, notably in Australia’s settlement days. It is a staggering fact of plant geography that 67% of the 54 plants listed here as introduced to Britain during the Roman occupation[2] are now naturalized in Australia, no doubt due, in part, the Mediterranean-like climate over much of Australia.

Food groups

Herbs & spices

Herbs and spices were among the first plants studied, grown, and traded in any quantity beyond the plants used for staple crops. Herbs and spices were grown for their aromas and flavours which gave then a mystical aura and they were probably among the first plants noted in prehistory and grown for medicinal purposes in antiquity. The aroma has often been associated with divine contact, fertility, and aphrodisiac properties. It is the association with medicinal plants that links herbs and spices to herb gardens of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the physic gardens and apothecaries of the Classical era and Middle Ages, to the early modern medicinal botanic gardens. That Eventually built on the science and scientific method of the Classical era, specifically Theophrastus‘s Lyceum in ancient Athens.

Some plants have the distinction of being used as both herbs and spices – like coriander, fennel, and dill. Some cultivated plants have no known ancestors in the wild and are therefore presumed extinct, this being the case for the broad bean, date palm, ginger, lentil, turmeric, and onion.

The herbs and spices that have figured substantially in world trade can be divided into two groups based on the climate of the countries where they grow: temperate and Mediterranean – coriander, cumin, fennel, frankincense, garlic, juniper, mint, myrrh, and thyme. Then there were the Far Eastern (and some Indian) tropical spices so central to world trade and global politics in the Age of Discovery: cinnamon, cloves, mace, nutmeg, pepper and, to a lesser extent, ginger and sandalwood.

The distinction between herbs and spices is not clear-cut but, in general, it relates to the part of the plant being used.

Herbs tend to be warm temperate plants while spices are mostly tropical.

Culinary herbs consist of the leafy green part of a plant, they are mostly temperate in origin. Spices are sourced from other parts of the plant than the leaf such as the root, stem, bulb, bark, resin, or seeds – and most spices have originated in the Asiatic tropics. 


Allspice (Pimenta dioica),
Angelica (Angelica archangelica),
Anise (Pimpinella anisum),
Asafoetida (Ferula assa-foetida),
Bay leaf (Laurus nobilis),
Basil (Ocimum basilicum),
Bergamot (Monarda species),
Borage (Borago officinalis),
Brown mustard (Brassica juncea),
Burnet (Sanguisorba minor and S. officinalis),
Catnip (Nepeta cataria),
Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium),
Chicory (Cichorium intybus),
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
Cicely (Myrrhis odorata),
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)
Costmary (Tanacetum balsamita)
Dill (Anethum graveolens),
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare),
Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum)
Holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum),
Horehound (Marrubium vulgare)
Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana),
Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)
Lavender (Lavandula species),
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis),
Lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus),
Lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora),
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra),
Lovage (Levisticum officinale),
Marjoram (Origanum majorana),
Oregano (Origanum vulgare),
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum),
Peppermint (Mentha ×piperita),
Rosemary (Salvia Rosmarinus),
Rue (Ruta graveolens),
Saffron (Crocus sativus),
Sage (Salvia officinalis),
Savory (Satureja hortensis and S. montana)
Sorrel (Rumex species),
Star anise (Illicium verum),
Spearmint (Mentha X spicata),
Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus),
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris).

Major spices

Cardamon (Eletteria cardamomum)
Cinnamon & Cassia (Cinnamomum spp.)
Chillies (Capsicum spp, inc. cayenne, paprika)
Cloves (Syzygium aromaticum)
Ginger (Zingiber officinalis)
Nutmeg and mace (Myrica fragrans)
Pepper (Piper nigrum)
Pimento (Capsicum annuum)
Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia)
Wasabi (Eutrema japonicum)

Minor spices

Angelica – Angelica archangelica
Capers – Capparis spinosa
Caraway – Carum carvi
Celery – Apium graveolens
Cumin – Cuminum cyminum
Dill – Anethum graveolens
Fennel – Foeniculum vulgare
Fenugreek – Trigonella foenum-graecum
Frankincense – Boswellia sacra & spp.
Galangal – Alpinia officinarum & other spp.
Garlic – Allium sativum
Horeseradish – Armoracia rusticana
Juniper – Juniperus spp.
Liquorice – Glycyrrhiza glabra
Mustard (white, yellow) – Sinapis alba
Mustard (brown) – Brassica juncea
Mustard (black) – Brassica nigra
Myrrh – Myrica fragrans
Onion – Allium spp. & cvs
Poppy – Papaver somniferum
Saffron – Crocus sativum
Sandalwood – Santalum spp.
Star anise – Illicium verum
Sesame – Sesamum indicum


Fruits evolved to be eaten as part of the dispersal process – though not all by humans. Even so, a global list of potentially edible kinds of fruit would possibly number in the thousands. Wikipedia has a useful foundational list along these lines, divided into more or less botanical categories:

Pome fruits – c. 100 species (apple and pear-like flesh round inedible core (endocarp), seeds typically in star-like pattern in section.
Drupes – c. 220 species (fruit with one seed (stone) or one hard capsule containing seeds. Botanical berries – c. 147 (fruit that has a relatively thin exterior, with mostly flesh and more than one seed inside).
Pepos – c. 35 species (melons etc.) fruit that is covered by a hard, thick rind with soft flesh inside, and seeds filling each locule. Melons.
Hesperidiums – c. 65 with thick and leathery rinds, esp. oranges and lemons, and often bitter.
Aggregate fruits cluster from a single flower – c. 90 (like raspberry). Cluster from multiple flowers – c. 57 e.g. pineapple.
Capsule – c. 50 (a pod fruit with multiple carpels).
In addition there are legumes, follicles and fruit-like botanical structures listed – c. 55

Abiu, Pouteria caimito
Açaí, Euterpe oleracea
Acerola, Malpighia emarginata
Akebi, Akebia trifoliolata
Amla, Phyllanthus emblica
Apple,  Malus domestica
Apricot, Prunus armeniaca
Banana, Musa x paradisiaca
Bearberry, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi
Bilberry, Vaccinium myrtillus
Blackberry, Rubus fruticosus
Blackcurrant, Ribes nigrum
Blue Berry, Vaccinium cyanococcus
Boysenberry, Rubus ursinus × Rubus idaeus
Breadfruit, Artocarpus altilis
Cantaloupe (Kharbuja), Cucumis melo cvs
Cape gooseberry, Physalis peruviana
Cherry, Prunus avium
Chinese Gooseberry, Actinidia deliciosa
Citron, Citrus medica
Clementine, Citrus × clementina
Coconut, Cocos nucifera
Crab apple, Malus sylvestris
Cranberry, Vaccinium sp.
Date, Phoenix dactylifera
Dewberry (northern), Rubus flagellaris
Dewberry (southern), Rubus trivialis
Dragon Fruit, Hylocereus undutus
Eggplant,Aubergine, Solanum melongena
Elderberry, Sambucus nigra
Feijoa, Acca sellowiana
Fig (sacred, Peepal), Ficus religiosa
Fig, Ficus carica
Goji berry, Lycium barbarum & Lycium chinense
Gooseberry, Ribes uva-crispa
Grape, Vitis vinifera
Grapefruit, Citrus × paradisi
Guava, Psidium guava
Honeydew Melon, Cucumis melo
Huckleberry, Vaccinium membranaceum
Kiwifruit, Actinidia deliciosa
Kumquat, Fortunella sp.
Lemon, Citrus × limon
Lime, Citrus × aurantiifolia
Loganberry, Rubus × loganobaccus
Loquat, Eriobotrya japonica
Lychee (Lichi), Litchi chinensis
Mandarin Orange, Citrus reticulata
Mandarin, Citrus reticulata
Mango, Mangifera indica
Melon (honeydew), Cucumis melo
Mulberry (Black), Morus nigra
Mulberry (White), Morus alba
Nectarine, Prunus persica var. nucipersica
Olive, Olea europaea
Orange, Citrus reticulata
Passionfruit, Passiflora edulis
Paw-Paw,Papaya, Carica papaya
Peach, Prunus persica
Pear, Pyrus communis
Pepino, Solanum muricatum
Persimmon, Diospyros kaki
Pineapple, Ananas comosus
Plantain, Musa × paradisiaca
Plum, Prunus domestica
Pomegranate, Punica granatum
Pomelo, Citrus maxima
Prickly pear, Opuntia spp.
Quince, Cydonia oblonga
Raspberry, Rubus idaeus
Redcurrant, Ribes rubrum
Rhubarb, Rheum rhabarbarum
Sloe, Prunus spinosa
Starfruit, Averrhoa carambola
Strawberry, Fragaria × ananassa
Tamarillo, Solanum betaceum
Tamarind, Tamarindus indica
Tangelo, Citrus × tangelo
Tangerine, Citrus tangerine
Watermelon, Citrullus lanatus
Youngberry, Rubus ursinus


Acorn – Quercus, Lithocarpus & Cyclobalanopsis spp.
Almond – Prunus dulcis
Betel or areca – Areca catechu
Brazil – Bertholletia excelsa
Canarium – Canarium harveyi, Canarium indicum, or Canarium commune
Candlenut – Aleurites moluccana
Cashew – Anacardium occidentale
Chestnut (Chinese) – Castanea mollissima
Chestnut (sweet) – Castanea sativa
Coconut – Cocos nucifera
Filbert – Corylus maxima
Ginkgo – Ginkgo biloba
Hazelnuts (American) – Corylus americana
Hazelnuts (Chilean) – Gevuina avellana
Hazelnuts (European) – Corylus avellana
Hickory (Mockernut) – Carya tomentosa
Hickory – Carya spp.)
Hickory (Shellbark) – Carya laciniosa
Jelly Palm Nut – Butia capitata
Kola nut – Cola spp.
Macadamia – Macadamia tetraphylla
Macadamia (Queensland) – Macadamia tetraphylla
Olive (Chinese) – Canarium album
Peanut, or groundnut – Arachis hypogaea
Pecan – Carya illinoinensis
Pili nuts – Canarium ovatum
Pistachio – Pistacia vera
Stone pine – Pinus pinea commonest commercial pine nut
Walnut (black) – Juglans nigra
Walnut (butternut, white) – Juglans cinerea
Walnut (English) – Juglans regia
Walnut (Heartnut, or Japanese) – Juglans aitlanthifolia


                                       Leafy Greens

Arrowhead elephant ear – Xanthosoma sagittifolium
Asiatic pennywort – Centella asiatica
Arugula – Eruca sativa
Beet (greens) – Beta vulgaris vulgaris
Binung – Christella dentata
Bok choy (白菜) – Brassica rapa (chinensis)
Borage – Borago officinalis
Broccoli – Brassica oleracea
Brooklime – Veronica beccabunga
Brussels sprouts – Brassica oleracea Gemmifera Group
Cabbage – Brassica oleracea Capitata Group
Catsear – Hypochaeris radicata
Celery – Apium graveolens
Lettuce – Lactuca sativa
Chaya – Cnidoscolus aconitifolius var. aconitifolius
Chili pepper leaves – Capsicum spp.
Chickweed – Stellaria spp.
Chicory – Cichorium intybus
Chinese mallow – Malva verticillate
Collard – Brassica oleracea
Purslane – Portulaca oleracea
Corn salad – Valerianella locusta
Cress – Lepidium sativum
Dandelion – Taraxacum officinale
Dill – Anethum graveolens
Endive – Cichorium endivia
Fat Hen – Chenopodium album
Fluted pumpkin – Telfairia occidentalis
Golden samphire – Inula crithmoides
Good King Henry – Chenopodium bonus-henricus
Kai-lan (芥蘭 Gai lan) – Brassica rapa Alboglabra Group
Kale – Brassica oleracea Acephala Group
Kalette – Brassica oleracea
Kerguelen cabbage – Pringlea antiscorbutica
Komatsuna – Brassica rapa
Lagos bologi – Talinum fruticosum
Lamb’s lettuce – Valerianella locusta
Lamb’s quarters – Chenopodium album
Land cress – Barbarea verna
Leaf celery – Apium graveolens var. secalinum
Lettuce – Lactuca sativa
Lizard’s tail – Houttuynia cordata
Malabar spinach – Basella alba
Moringa leaves – Moringa oleifera
Miner’s lettuce (Winter purslane) – Claytonia perfoliate
Mizuna greens – Brassica rapa Nipposinica Group
Mustard – Sinapis alba
Napa cabbage   Brassica rapa (chinensis)
New Zealand Spinach     Tetragonia tetragonioides
Orache Atriplex hortensis
Pak choy (白菜 Bok choy) – Brassica rapa Chinensis Group
Papaya leaves – Carica papaya
Paracress – Acmella oleracea
Pea (sprouts / leaves) – Pisum sativum
Pitogo – Cycas riuminiana
Poke  – Phytolacca americana
Purple bauhinia,Butterfly tree  – Bauhinia purpurea
Radicchio – Cichorium intybus
Rapini (broccoli rabe) – Brassica rapa var. ruvo
Red spinach – Amaranthus dubius
Samphire – Crithmum maritimum
Royal fern – Osmunda regalis
Sea beet – Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima
Sea kale – Crambe maritima
Shepherd’s purse – Capsella bursa-pastoris
Soko – Celosia argentea
Sorrel – Rumex acetosa
Sour cabbage – Brassica oleracea
Spinach – Spinacia oleracea
Summer purslane – Portulaca oleracea
Sunset muskmallow – Abelmoschus Manihot
Sweet potato leaves – Ipomoea batatas
Swiss chard – Beta vulgaris Cicla Group
Tahitian spinach – Xanthosoma Brasiliense
Taro leaves – Colocasia esculenta
Tatsoi – Brassica rapa  Rosularis Group
Turnip greens –  Brassica rapa Rapifera Group
Fern (vegetable) – Diplazium esculentum
Vegetable hummingbird – Sesbania grandiflora
Viagra palm – Calamus erectus
Watercress – Nasturtium officinale
Water spinach – Ipomoea aquatica
Yao choy (油菜 Yu choy) – Brassica napus

                                   Pod vegetables

American groundnut – Apios americana
Asparagus bean – Vigna unguiculata
Azuki bean – Vigna angularis
Bean (runner) – Phaseolus coccineus
Black-eyed pea – Vigna unguiculata ssp. unguiculata
Blue pea, Asian pigeonwings – Clitoria ternatea
Chickpea – Cicer arietinum
Common bean – Phaseolus vulgaris
Drumstick – Moringa oleifera
Dolichos bean – Lablab purpureus
Fava bean – Vicia faba
Garbanzo – Cicer arietinum
Green bean (French bean) – Phaseolus vulgaris
Guar – Cyamopsis tetragonoloba
Horse gram – Macrotyloma uniflorum
Hyacinth bean – Lablab purpureus
Indian pea – Lathyrus sativus
Lentil – Lens culinaris
Lima bean – Phaseolus lunatus
Moth bean – Vigna acontifolia
Mung bean – Vigna radiata
Okra – Abelmoschus esculentus
Pea – Pisum sativum
Pea (snap) – Pisum sativum
Pea (snow) – Pisum sativum
Pea (pigeon) – Cajanus cajan
Peanut – Arachis hypogaea
Ricebean – Vigna umbellata
Soybean – Glycine max
Tarwi – Lupinus mutabilis
Tepary bean – Phaseolus acutifolius
Urad bean – Vigna mungo
Velvet bean – Mucuna pruriens
Winged bean – Psophocarpus tetragonolobus


                   Bulb & stem vegetables

Asparagus – Asparagus officinalis
Asparagus (Prussian) – Ornithogalum pyrenaicum
Banana pith – Musa × paradisiaca & others
Cardoon – Cynara cardunculus
Celeriac – Apium graveolens Rapaceum Group
Celery – Apium graveolens
Chives – Allium schoenoprasum
Chives (garlic) – Allium tuberosum
Elephant garlic -Allium ampeloprasum (ampeloprasum)
Fennel – Foeniculum vulgare
Garlic – Allium sativum
Heart of palm – Cocos nucifera, Euterpe spp. & other palms
Kohlrabi – Brassica oleracea Gongylodes Group
Kurrat – Allium ampeloprasum Kurrat Group
Landang – Corypha spp.
Leek – Allium porrum
Leek (wild) – Allium tricoccum
Lemongrass – Cymbopogon citratus
Lotus root – Nelumbo nucifera
Nopal – Opuntia ficus-indica
Onion – Allium cepa
Onion (pearl) –  Allium ampeloprasum Sectivum Group
Onion (potato) – Allium cepa Aggregatum Group
Onion (spring, scallion) – Allium wakegi
Onion (tree) – Allium × proliferum
Onion (Welsh) – Allium fistulosum
Rice (Manchurian wild) – Zizania latifolia
Sago – Metroxylon sagu, Cycas revoluta
Sea beans/ Samphire – Salicornia spp.
Shallot – Allium cepa Aggregatum Group

                              Root vegetables

Ahipa – Pachyrhizus ahipa
Arracacha – Arracacia xanthorrhiza
Arrowleaf, Elephant ear – Xanthosoma sagittifolium
Artichoke (Chinese) – Stachys affinis
Bamboo shoot – Bambusa vulgaris & spp., Phyllostachys edulis
Beetroot – Beta vulgaris subsp. vulgaris
Broadleaf arrowhead – Sagittaria latifolia
Burdock – Arctium lappa
Camas – Camassia spp.
Canna – Canna spp.
Carrot – Daucus carota
Cassava – Manihot esculenta
Cassumunar ginger – Zingiber cassumunar
Chinese ginger – Boesenbergia rotunda
Daikon – Raphanus sativus var. longipinnatus
Earthnut pea – Lathyrus tuberosus
Elephant foot yam – Amorphophallus paeoniifolius
Ensete – Ensete ventricosum
Galangal (lesser) – Alpinia officinarum
Ginger – Zingiber officinale
Horseradish – Armoracia rusticana
Jerusalem artichoke – Helianthus tuberosus
Jícama – Pachyrhizus erosus
Kencur – Kaempferia galanga
Lengkuas (Greater galangal) – Alpinia galanga
Mashua – Tropaeolum tuberosum
Palmyra sprout – Borassus flabellifer
Parsley (Hamburg) – Petroselinum crispum Radicosum Group
Parsnip – Pastinaca sativa
Pignut – Conopodium majus
Polynesian arrowroot / East Indian arrowroot     Tacca leontopetaloides
Potato – Solanum tuberosum
Prairie turnip – Psoralea esculenta
Radish – Raphanus sativus
Rutabaga (swede) – Brassica napus Napobrassica Group
Salsify – Tragopogon porrifolius
Scorzonera – Scorzonera hispanica
Skirret – Sium sisarum
Swede – Brassica napus Napobrassica Group
Sweet potato (Kumara) – Ipomoea batatas
Taro – Colocasia esculenta
Taro (giant swamp) – Cyrtosperma merkusii
Taro (giant) – Alocasia macrorrhizos
Ti – Cordyline fruticose
Tigernut – Cyperus esculentus
Turmeric – Curcuma longa
Turnip – Brassica rapa Rapifera Group
Ube, Purple yam – Dioscorea alata
Ulluco – Ullucus tuberosus
Wasabi – Wasabia japonica
Water caltrop – Trapa natans, Trapa bicornis
Water chestnut – Eleocharis dulcis
Yacón – Smallanthus sonchifolius
Yam – Dioscorea spp.
Yautia Horqueta – Xanthosoma caracu

Marine Vegetables

Aonori  – Monostroma spp., Enteromorpha spp.
Arame – Eisenia bicyclis
Carola – Callophyllis variegate
Dabberlocks, Badderlocks – Alaria esculenta
Dulse, Dillisk – Palmaria palmata
Eelgrass, Seagrass – Zostera spp.
Gusô – Eucheuma spp.
Hijiki – Hizikia fusiformis
Kombu – Laminaria japonica
Laver, Gim – Porphyra spp.
Mozuku – Cladosiphon okamuranus
Nori – Porphyra spp.
Ogonori – Gracilaria spp.
Sea grape – Caulerpa lentillifera, Caulerpa racemose
Sea lettuce – Ulva lactuca
Wakame – Undaria pinnatifida

Horticultural crops

There are also a large number of second-order fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

Lesser cereals

Oats, sorghum and millet.


Economic crops

There are additional economically important plants as beverages, luxury and other more practical goods: tobacco, the Rubber plant from Brazil, quinine from Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, breadfruit from Malaysia, opium from Eurasia, nutmeg and cloves from the Moluccas, fibres hemp and jute from Asia and sisal from South America, and cotton from the tropics and beyond.

Ornamental plants


Additional major species

AgaveAgave spp. & Aloe spp.
The Agave genus consisting of about 300 species occurs naturally in America hot zone of rocky mountains and dry deserts of the SW USA from Mexico into the tropics of South America. The best-known species is Agave americana, incorrectly called Century Plant because it is thought to flower only once in 100 years before dying. The plant is monocarpic (the adult dies after flowering and fruiting) but it usually flowers at least once every thirty years and generally survives with the regrowth of ’pups’ at its base.

The genus is known for its various economic applications: the fibre sisal from A. sisaliana and other fibres used for twine, numerous medicinal extracts including those containing toxic chemicals used to tip poison arrows or for stunning fish. The Aztec empire used the fibres from A. pacifica and other species to manufacture clothing, brushes, ropes, cords, sacking, sandals and baskets. Wrenching the needle-tips from the plant brought threads that could be immediately sewn. Spanish invaders of South America brought brewing skills that were soon applied to local plants and by the 1620s the fleshy leaf bases of A. tequilana were being pulped and the starches fermented in vats to create an alcoholic drink called mescal or tequila, named after the town in Jalisco state, also for pulque which is the fermented sap. (L. p. 9) A sweetener called agave syrup is extracted from A. tequilana and A. salmiana

In the same family is the genus Aloe from South Africa, Madagascar and Arabia with over 350 species whose sap, especially that of A. vera, is used to treat dermatitis, burns, eczema, shampoos and cosmetics especially as and as a general skin conditioner.

Ananas Pineapple

BarleyHordeum vulgare
Barley is a symbol of the major human transition called the Agricultural or Neolithic Revolution as barley grains have been found in archaeological excavations at sites in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East dating back 9000 years or more are among the first records of the settled communities employing agricultural practices. Domesticated barley has its seed in six persisting rows (assisting harvesting) while wild barley has its seed in two rows and is shed from the barleycorn. Barley was preferred over wheat by both Greeks and Romans for their breadmaking but its low gluten prevented it from responding to yeast by rising into a loaf and ceding its place to wheat. Malt derived from fresh seedlings is used to ferment not only Beer but also the finest whiskeys. It is also popular as animal fodder.

BananaMusa x paradisiana
Native to the Malay-Indonesia region but now planted around the world. Plants were spread by Islamic nations out of south-east Asia to the Near East, North Africa, and the Iberian Peninsula. By 800-900 CE bananas were familiar subjects in in Islamic literature and art and there is a possibility the genus name is derived from the Arabic name mauz (موز) used for the fruit. In the sixteenth century the banana was introduce d to the Americas by the Portuguese via West Africa and the Canaries (Harris p. 202) but for some time the banana, which required rapid transport systems and refrigeration, remained a luxury exotic novelty in temperate Europe until the twentieth century. In the years of the Cold War, especially 1970s and 1980s, bananas became symbolic of republics that were the centre of proxy wars.

Bananas are sweet and eaten raw, plantain (Ensete) are starchy and eaten cooked. Bananas may have been cultivated in New Guinea as much as 10,000 years ago.

The linking of botanic gardens to crops and taxonomy occurs in many ways. For example a banana plant from Surinam was grown in the glasshouses at Hartekamp. Here Linnaeus was the first European to coax the plant into flower and fruit. Excitedly he sent a fruit to Antoine de Jussieu at the Paris Jardin du Roi (and who had also been trying to get the plant to fruit) Jussieu being most impressed. When naming the plant Linnaeus chose the genus name Musa, almost certainly in commemoration of Antonius Musa a Greek freedman botanist-physician to Rome’s first emperor Augustus. It was believed at the time that the Tree of Knowledge, whose forbidden fruit was eaten by Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, was in fact a banana and, accordingly, Linnaeus erected the names Musa sapientum and Musa paradisiaca.

There are now thousands of cultivars the most useful selected character being seedlessness. Perhaps the best known is ‘Cavendish’. Cultivars are propagated by splitting the multi-trunked base and this clonal stock is vulnerable to diseases like the deadly Panama disease. With brittle tissue the plants can also be flattened by heavy weather. The complete banana genome was sequenced in 2012 and this should assist in the search for disease-resistant cultivars (Harris, p. 204).

BambooBambusa spp., Phyllostachys spp.

Beta vulgaris
Brassica oleracea Wild Cabbage

Cannabis sativa Hemp
Capsicum frutecens Chilli

CinnamonCinnamomum nova-zeylanicum (C. verum)
See botany of spices.

Citrus sinensis Orange

ClovesSyzygium aromaticum
See botany of spices.

Cocos nucifera Coconut

CoffeeCoffea arabica
See history in six drinks. From Ethiopia and Arabia to Turkey, Europe and the world.

Coriandrum sativum Coriander

CottonGossypium hirsutum
Cotton has been cultivated in Mexico for over 8,000 years ago and in the Old World 7,000 years ago in the Indus Valley Civilization but not noticed by the Greco-Roman world until the Wars of Alexander the Great. It clothed the people of ancient India, Egypt, and China and. In the 1st century, Arab traders brought fine muslin and calico to Italy and Spain and the Moors introduced the cultivation of cotton into Spain in the 9th century. In Iran (Persia), the history of cotton dates back to 5th century B.C. During the late medieval period, cotton became known as an imported fiber in northern Europe. The advent of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and America provided a great boost to cotton manufacture, as textiles emerged as Britain’s leading export. Machinery needed to mass-produce garments was soon developed. Improving technology and increasing control of world markets allowed British traders to develop a commercial chain in which raw cotton fibers were (at first) purchased from colonial plantations, processed into cotton cloth in the mills of Lancashire, and then re-exported on British ships to captive colonial markets in West Africa, India, and China (via Shanghai and Hong Kong).

Crocus sativus Saffron

Daucus carota Carrot
Digitalis purpurea Foxglove
Dioscorea Yam
Elaeis guineensis Oil Palm
Elettaria cardamomum Cardamon
Erythroxylum coca Coca
Glycine max Soybean

Helianthus annuus Sunflower
Hevea brasiliensis Rubber

Humulus lupulus Hop
Indigofera tinctoria Indigo
Isatis tinctoria Woad
Lathyrus odoratus Sweet Pea
Lavandula Lavender
Malus pumila Crab apple
Mandragora officinarum
Morus alba White Mulberry

Ginger Zingiber officinale Ginger
A plant used in China and India since antiquity, it may be an Indian native plant that no longer grows in the wild.

Maize Zea mays
Maize has been grown for millennia in the Americas, being transposed to Europe and then the rest of the world in the 15th century to become today a major source of animal and human nutrition and the source of many edible and non-edible products that are made and used across the world. It gradually became a major farm crop in North America and Europe, firstly in a non-sweet form as animal fodder then, as a sweet variety, for human consumption especially as the breakfast cereal ‘corn flakes’. Columbus probably brought back Maize from the New World to Spain on is first trip but certainly on the second in 1493. By the 1530s it was being grown around the Mediterranean. Like sugar passing in the other direction, maize would soon arrive in China, possibly in the 1530s but with the first definite record in 1555 (Standage, p. 113) It could be grown in soil too wet for wheat and too dry for rice.

Nutmeg & MaceMyristica fragrans
See botany of spices.

Olea europaea Olive

Onion Allium spp.

Oryza sativa Rice

OpiumPapaver somniferum
Remains of opium poppy have been recovered from prehistory sites of the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages. It is mentioned in the ancient Egyptian Ebers Papyrus and the Materia Medica of Dioscorides. In Europe from the seventeeth century at least, opium has been recognised as a medicinal plant valued for pain relief. Unfortunately as the derivative heroin it has also been the source of addiction, drug trafficking, and underworld crime.

The plant is native to Asia Minor and is easily recognised by its blue leaves, white sap, and large attractive flowers: it was introduced to both the West and East by Arab traders and the Chinese only began using it in quantity in the nineteenth century. The globose fruits have pores in a ring around the top, like a pepperpot, from which the small black seeds are shed, and poppy seed is a popular dressing for bread and cakes, also a source of oil and flavouring, containing little morphine and opiates that are the mentally active ingredients. They are accessed by scoring the fruit that releases the sap which hardens into a sticky Brown resin, the source of the alkaloids opium, morphine, codein, thebaine, and heroin. One hectare can produce 12 kg (H p. 25) that is generally processed into morphine or heroin.

Opium was one of the first drugs to be artificially processed in the early nineteenth century so that precise dosages could be administered, the method later applied to extracts of nicotine, caffeine, and quinine. Its use in medicine declined as the use of chloroform and ether increased. In the Victorian era laudanum was a particularly popular derivative until addictive compounds were outlawed at the end of the century.

Canton was the port used by the British East India Company for the tea trade, the tea traded in exchange for opium produced in British India’s opium fields in Bengal and distributed from Calcutta. In 1729 the Chinese emperor banned opium trade because of its effects on users but only in 1838 would there be a halt when a consignment was destroyed but the British launched its gunboats and the opium wars of the 1840s and 1856 ensued, they were unworthy wars that cost China Hong Kong.

Recreational use of opium and laudanum has been associated with literary figures like Thomas De Quincey, the English Romantic poets, and Sherlock Holmes but its use as heroin has also been associated with the military in modern wars like Vietnam. In the 1920s most of the drug was produced in Thailand, Myanma, and Laos, today more than 80% of the illegal market comes from Afghanistan (H. p.28). legal production coming from India and Turkey and in Australia from Tasmania.

PapyrusCyperus papyrus
The word papyrus, from which we derive the word ‘paper’, comes from the ancient Greek papuros, which is the edible part of the marshland sedge Cyperus papyrus which is native to North Africa and often associated with the ancient Egyptian civilization and the river Nile. Greeks called the pith in the stems of this plant biblos from which we get the words ‘Bible’ and ‘bibliography’.

Writing evolved as human communities became larger and the need for records and archives increased – for taxes and commercial transactions, rules and regulations, contracts and constitutions, births and deaths – all stored in libraries and archives. Writing surfaces have included clay tablets like those used by ancient Sumerians for their cuneiform script, wooden or bamboo strips as used in ancient China, bark as used by Mexican Aztecs, but also palm fronds and parchment as animal skins (velum). All the ancient Mediterranean civilizations used papyrus as ‘paper’ formed into either scrolls or as folded sheets bound together as codices. Pith strips were aligned to form sheets and another layer added at right angles then flattened and fused by hammering before being dried and polished. The Romans manufactured paper of many different qualities, the best named after their famous Emperor Augustus.

The key ingredient of papyrus is cellulose and it can be carbon-dated and when kept dry will last for millennia like those preserved in Roman Herculaneum after the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, and ancient Egyptian scrolls dating back more than 4000 years, marking the transition from pre-history to history, but are highly combustible as discovered when the famous library at Alexandria was burned down twice, in 48 BCE and in the 270s CE.

Use of papyrus died out about 1000 years ago: present-day paper being made from wood pulp and originally manufactured in China in the first century CE, passing to the Arab world in about 750 CE. Paper production remains the main reason for the destruction of the world’s forests.

PepperPiper nigrum
See botany of spices.

Pinus spp.


Pisum sativum

PotatoSolanum tuberosum
The potato which grows naturally in the temperate Andes of southern Peru was domesticated about 10,000 years ago. The clasification of domesticated potatoes is complicated by genetic introgression and interspecific hybridization, the presence of auto- and alloploidy, the presence of both sexual and asexual reproduction and great phenotypic plasticity leading to the description of many species now placed in syonymy although Linnaeus recognised only one species, Solanum tuberosum.[1] German botanist Alefeld in 1866 recognised many morphological variants based on tuber skin colour, flesh colour an texture, and flower colour, subsequent taxonomists recognising one to several species and various cultivar groups. Today national and international genebanks collect, study, and distribute germplasm. Four cultivated species (cultigens) are currently recognised.[1] Potato tubers are a starchy food staple used in alcohol production. Introduced to the Canaries in 1567 was taken from Peru to Spain with silver in about 1570, and from Europe to North America in 1621. Basque fishermen used potatoes as food for their voyages across the Atlantic in the 16th century, and introduced the tuber to western Ireland, where they landed to dry their cod. English privateer Francis Drake introduced the potato to England in 1580 on return from his circumnavigation of the globe. China now produces more potatoes than any other country. All modern potato cultivars are based on Chilean germplasm following the European potato blight of 1845. In 2007 producing more than double that of Russia, the second-most producer.

Quercus robur English Oak
Rosa canina Dog Rose

QuinineChinchona spp.
Quinine has been one of the most valuable medicinal plants of the modern period. Malaria (the ague, swamp fever) is a devastating mosquito-spread disease. Likely originating in Eurasia it was probably spread into the tropics by Europeans. It has been associated with major historical plagues including the decline of the Roman Empire. In the early seventeenth century an extract from the bark of tropical quinine trees in the Andean genus Cinchona were used as a cure and it would prove critical in allowing Europeans to colonise the tropics.

Legend has it that Peruvian Countess of Chinchón in Lima suffering from malaria was recommended by a Jesuit priest to administer an extract from the bark of a local tree. The folk remedy was successful and upon her return to Spain the news spread and the genus of the source tree later named after her by Linnaeus. Attempts were made to control supplies and put Cinchona into cultivation, the French used English botanist Hugh Weddell in 1845 to investigate the plant in Peru and Bolivia and in 1853 the Dutch sent German botanist Justus Carl Hasskarl to Peru to collect seed for cultivation in Java. English Plant hunter Clements Markham in 1859 sent Andean seed to Kew and Calcutta Botanic Gardens eventually establishing a plantation in government gardens in the Indian Nilgiri Hills. Also the British in 1860 sent Richard Spruce to Ecuador collecting seeds and plants to grow in British India where they were the source of quinine until the early twentieth century. The quantity of active ingredient various considerably both among and between species. Bolivian seed collected illegally by Englishman Charles Ledger in 1865 was offered to the British but refused and eventually grown by the Dutch in Java: it had concentrations 32 times that of their existing populations. Artificial synthesis began in 1940s and nowadays we only know it as the bitter flavour of tonic water so popular with gin during the British Raj of colonial India.

Rice – From E Himalayas and SE Asia to China, Japan, India, Africa, Middle East, S Europe & world.
Sugarcane Saccharum officinarum
The human use of sugarcane dates back thousands of years. Possibly originating in New Guinea it was a commodity along the trade routes of Southeast Asia and Thee process of crystallizing the juice was developed in India around 500 BC. It was introduced into Europe until the middle-ages, brought to Spain by Arabs. Columbus took the plant to the West Indies, where it thrived in the tropical climate.

Salix alba White Willow
Solanum lycopersicum Tomato
Taxus baccata

TeaCamellia sinensis
See history in six drinks. From China to mainland Asia, Europe and the world.

Theobroma cacao Cocoa

tobacco Nicotiana tabacum
See tobacco.

Tulipa Tulip

Vanilla Vanilla

Vicia faba

WheatTriticum aestivum

wineVitis vinifera cvs
See history in six drinks.

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