This article provides a summary account of the major plants of significance to humanity, past and present – ranging from major crops, medicines, artistic and structural materials to those that have collectively generated our global economy, contributed to the ravages wars, the injustices of slave plantations and other historical events. Unsurprisingly most of these plants are of economic significance.
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.
Staple foods – agriculture
Staple foods are those making up the major part of diet, providing most of the energy intake of macronutrients fat, carbohydrate and protein along with a range of nutrients. Staples are generally in plentiful supply, relatively cheap, and eaten at least once a day. Often they were preferred foods because they were generally easily stored. Staples fall into the general groupings of cereals: wheat, barley, rye, maize, or rice; root crops potatoes, yams, taro, arrowroot, and cassava; legumes peas and beans.
There are also a large number of second-order fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Lesser cereals include oats, sorghum and millet. Food crops obtained from the New World of South America and the Caribbean included avocado, cashew, cassava, chili peppers, cocoa, French beans, Jerusalem artichoke, peanuts, pineapple, pumpkin, runner beans, squash, sunflower, sweet potato, tomato, vanilla and the staple cereal maize (corn). From the Old World and Asia passing to the New World were apples, bananas, citrus, coffee, grapes, olives, onions, peaches, pears, and tea. From SE Asia the coconut, taro, yams, and plantains. Nuts: cashews, coconut, peanuts, Brazilnut, hazelnut, chestnut, macadamia, pistacia.
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.
Agave – Agave 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.
Barley – Hordeum 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.
Banana – Musa 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).
Bamboo – Bambusa spp., Phyllostachys spp.
Brassica oleracea Wild Cabbage
Cannabis sativa Hemp
Capsicum frutecens Chilli
Cinnamon – Cinnamomum nova-zeylanicum (C. verum)
See botany of spices.
Citrus sinensis Orange
Cloves – Syzygium aromaticum
See botany of spices.
Cocos nucifera Coconut
Coffee – Coffea arabica
See history in six drinks.
Coriandrum sativum Coriander
Cotton – Gossypium 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
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
Malus pumila Crab apple
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 & Mace – Myristica fragrans
See botany of spices.
Olea europaea Olive
Onion Allium spp.
Oryza sativa Rice
Opium – Papaver 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.
Papyrus – Cyperus 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.
Pepper – Piper nigrum
See botany of spices.
Potato – Solanum 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. 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. 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
Quinine – Chinchona 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.
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
Tea – Camellia sinensis
See history in six drinks.
Theobroma cacao Cocoa
Tobacco – Nicotiana tabacum
Wheat – Triticum aestivum
Wine – Vitis vinifera cvs
See history in six drinks.