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Growing a Taste of Yesterday... Today!

The sunflower is a native plant of North and South America.  The American Indians used it's seed as a source of food.  The Incas of Peru, who were sun worshipers, used it in their religious ceremonies.  Spanish Conquistadors brought the sunflower seed back to Europe where it became popular for it's ornamental beauty and nutritional worth.

Tomatoes were originally thought to be poisonous and did not gain acceptance in the U.S. until 1820, when Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson ate a basket full of tomatoes on the courthouse steps in Salem, New Jersey on September 26, 1820. The assembeled crowd expected to see the Colonel drop dead. When he suffered no ill effects, the tomato was on it's way to become the most popular vegetable grown by backyard gardeners today !

The Scarlet Runner bean, which originated in Central America, was grown as an ornamental vine in sixteenth-century Europe.
(Their lush green foliage and scarlet colored flowers are still grown for this purpose.) They were introduced to the United States in the early 1800's and were not used for culinary purposes until later in that century.

Melons were not grown in North America until the European colonists brought them over, probably in the mid 1600's. The so called "melons" the native American Indians grew were really varieties of pumpkins and squash.

Capsaicin is the alkaloid ingredient that gives peppers their heat. The capsaicin content is greater in the hot peppers than the bell peppers. It is also effected by climate conditions, geographic location and the age of the fruit. A pepper grown in warm weather contains a higher amount of capsaicin than the same pepper grown in cooler climates. Higher nightime temperatures seem to be a must for growing really hot peppers. Also, peppers left on the vine to reach maturity have a higher capsaicin content than those that are picked early.

While leaf lettuce was eaten during Greek and Roman times, heading lettuce did not appear until the late 1500's. Thomas Jefferson grew fifteen varieties of lettuce in his garden, during the 1800's, of which only two were of the heading variety. Today the heading variety is the most popular in the United States, with consumption at over four billion heads a year.

Peas have been around a long time. Early archeologists have found them in cave dwellings dating back to 9750 B.C. These early peas were probably peeled and roasted over a fire. According to Norse legend, peas were sent to earth by the God Thor, and were only to be eaten on his day (Thursday). Peas reached North America in 1493, having been planted by Columbus on Isabella Island. They did not gain widespread popularity in the United States until the 1600's.

Horehound is a perennial herb that the ancient Hebrews and Egyptians used as an antidote for poisons and a cure for respiratory illnesses and ulcers.  It was even used on snakebites.  These uses are not recommended today, but horehound is still used in the manufacture of syrups, teas and lozenges to treat sore throats.

The Jack-O-Lantern arrived in this country from Ireland in the mid nineteenth century.  Irish legend has it that a blacksmith named Jack sold his soul to the devil for financial gain.  When it came time to pay the devil with his soul, he weaseled out of the deal by trapping the devil in a pear tree.  Barred from Heaven for his deal with the devil, he was sent straight to Hell.  The devil, still embarrassed over the pear tree incident, kicked him out of Hell.  On his way out Jack scooped up a lump of burning coal and placed it in a pumpkin.  He used this as a lantern while wondering around the earth waiting for Judgment Day.

Lettuce, a member of the daisy family, first became popular table fare back in Greek and Roman times.  They believed that lettuce salads enhanced the appetite in preparation for their gigantic feasts.  Americans today eat about 30 lbs. of lettuce each, per year.

Some curious beliefs from years gone by:  Dried dill was once hung from the outsides of doors and windows to protect those inside from witches. - Fennel was said to be eaten by serpents to improve their eyesight, making it easier to attack their victims. - In the 9th century, drinking horehound tea was said to protect that person from the bites of mad dogs.

In Greek and Roman times, the radish was very different than the ones we grow today.  The radish was grown for winter storage, and often weighed 50 to 100 lbs. each.  It was eaten cooked or raw and seasoned with honey and vinegar.

The tomato is the most popular garden plant.  Over 90% of all home gardeners cultivate tomatoes in their garden.  There are currently over 500 tomato varieties on the market.  As with many fruits and vegetables, tomatoes should be consumed fairly soon after picking, as their sugar content decreases in storage.
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The cucumber was a favorite vegetable of ancient Egyptians.  They made a drink from the fruit called "cucumber water".   First a hole was cut in the end of a ripe cucumber.  A small stick was then inserted into the hole and used to breakup and stir the pulp.  The hole was then plugged, and the cucumber buried in the ground for a few days.  The fruit was then unearthed, with the inside pulp having turned into a fermented drink.  (We do not recommend this use for cucumbers today!)

Corn is one of the most widely grown crops in the USA.  Only about 10% of the corn grown ends up on the dinner table as a side dish, while over 50% of it is used for livestock feed.  The rest of the crop is used to make everything from syrup and starch to whiskey and oil.  Corn flakes were so popular in the early 1900's that there was over 40 companies producing this breakfast cereal in and around Battle Creek, Michigan.

During the War between the States, doctors in the Union army routinely used onion juice to clean gunshot wounds, and General Grant, deprived of it, sent a testy memo to the War Department : "I will not move my troops without onions!"

When potatoes were brought back to England, the English were not quite sure what to do with them.  Sir Walter Raleigh gave some potato plants to Queen Elizabeth I.  When it came time for Queen Elizabeth's cooks to prepare them, they tossed out the tubers and boiled the stems and leaves.  Everyone at the table became deathly ill and potatoes were banned from the royal kitchen.

What are the 10 most popular home grown vegetables in the USA and Canada?  According to  a survey, the top 10 are (in order of popularity): Tomatoes, Peppers, Cucumbers, Onions, Beans, Lettuce, Carrots, Sweet Corn, Radishes and Cabbage.  Tomatoes were grown in a little over 85% of all gardens with Cabbage being grown in only 30%.

How long have people enjoyed the flavor of sauerkraut?  When the Chinese were building the fifteen hundred mile long Great Wall Of China, they sustained themselves on cabbage pickled in wine.

In the seventeenth century it was said that cows fed Dutch Carrots yielded the richest milk and the yellowest butter.  While butter makers in other parts of Europe, using less well fed cows, colored their butter by adding carrot juice to the churn.

Did you know that the Pimiento is an attractive and tasty pepper that, regrettably, is known to most of us solely as a stuffing for green olives.

Back in the late 19th century some towns in England had laws that reduced a persons taxes if he planted flowers and shrubbery in his yard to beautify it.  If the person next to him did not do the same, his taxes were raised.  With these laws, the towns became attractive for visitors and towns folk alike.

In the 1800’s, cornmeal was often used in combination with soap to wash the dirt from the farmers hands.  The coarse cornmeal helped loosen the dirt and was said to stop the hands from chapping.  (Note: Don’t try this with today’s indoor plumbing,  as the cornmeal might clog the sink.)

Today's gardeners are always trying to grow the biggest tomato, watermelon or pumpkin.  Back in the 1800's the prize of every gardener was a gigantic turnip.  Thirty pounders were quite common and a grower in California was said to have grown a turnip of over 100 lbs. in 1850.

According to Greek mythology, one could break the magical spells of sorcerers by drinking a tonic made with horehound leaves.  Today, a tea made with horehound and honey can be used to ease the pain of a sore throat.

Peas have come along way to the tender, sweet varieties that we enjoy today.  Archaeological findings suggest that early man ate peas that were roasted over open flames and peeled, similar to the way we eat chestnuts today!

Fennel is one of our oldest cultivated plants and was much used by the Romans.  Gladiators consumed fennel prior to battle to make them fierce, while Roman women ate fennel to prevent obesity.
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In 1983,  New York Transit officials dusted ground hot pepper on subway token slots to prevent rambunctious teenagers from sucking tokens out of the turnstiles.

The herb feverfew was grown by Charlemagne in his botanical gardens.  During his reign (800-814 A.D.), it was used by the Romans to reduce fevers, and as a sleep aid.

While the taste of parsley is very mild, its peculiar smell is strong.  When chewed after a meal,  it can neutralize the odors given to the breath by onions, garlic and other hardy delicacies.

Peppers can contain up to six times as much vitamin C as oranges!  The highest levels are found when the peppers are in their "green" stage.  Hot peppers contain less vitamin C than the milder bell peppers.

This bit of information appeared in The Garden Diary and Country Home Guide published in 1908.  "An old rule is to plant sweet corn in the spring when the leaves of the white oak tree are as large as a mouse's ear or when the soil feels warm to your bare bottom."  (Just make sure the neighbors aren't watching if you try this !!)

During the seventeenth century, the radish was used for a variety of "so called" medicinal purposes.   It was used as a general antidote for poisoning, a cure for snake bites, to alleviate the pain of child birth and to remove freckles.   When mashed, and then mixed with honey and dried sheep's blood,  it was reported to cure baldness!

Did you know that the herb valerian was used during World War I and World War II to treat shell shock and nervous stress?

While pumpkins and winter squash have been popular in the United States since the time of the Pilgrims, the most common squash grown today has only been popular in the United States for the last 50 years.  The zucchini was introduced to this country in the mid 1900's by the Italians and is now grown by more gardeners than any other squash.

In the 1970's, over 70% of the corn acreage grown in the U.S.A. was planted with just six varieties of corn.  When a new strain of southern leaf blight fungus appeared that year, corn fields across the country were wiped out.  Such are the dangers of specialization, when it comes to agriculture.

Hyssop was once used in the Hebrew temples during the ritual cleansing of the lepers.  Research shows this may have protected those performing the bathing .  Scientists have discovered the mold that produces penicillin can grow on the hyssop leaf.  This could have acted as antibiotic protection for the caregivers against this disease.

Nearly 90% of the world's plants depend on bees and other pollinating insects to reproduce seed and thus perpetuate the species.

Coriander is one of the most ancient herbs still cultivated today.  It was grown in Egyptian gardens and used as funeral offerings in Egyptian tombs.

In 1869, Dr. Brown's Celery Tonic went on sale.  The drink consisted of soda water and crushed celery seed.   This started a celery craze in the late 19th century that included celery flavored soft drinks, celery gum, celery soup and elixir of celery.

In the 1600’s,  English women often wore carrot leaves in their hats in place of flowers or feathers.

There are over 350 varieties of ladybugs in the world.  These beneficial insects have big appetites, with both the larvae and adult ladybugs devouring many harmful insects each day.

Squash and pumpkins were a popular food source for the early American settlers, but it was not until the 19th century that they were accepted as such in Europe. (They were originally used as livestock feed by Europeans.)

In the late 1800's, the tomato was just making its way onto the dinner table.  But before this, it had already showed up in peoples medicine cabinet.  Physicians of that time used the tomato as a remedy for indigestion, diarrhea, liver disease and as a cholera preventive.  Such items as "Dr. Miles Compound Extract of Tomato" and "Dr. Phelps Compound Tomato Pills" were popular cures in many peoples homes. (These remedies are not meant to be used today!)

Colonists on the Mayflower baked their pumpkins whole in the ashes of a fire.  Once the pumpkins were cooked, they cut them open and served moistened with animal fat and maple syrup.   Another specialty was a beer made from pumpkins, persimmons and maple sugar.

When Columbus first arrived in the Americas, there were close to 300 varieties of corn being grown on the continent.  Today, only 16 varieties of corn account for over 70% of the corn being grown in the United States.  With the advent of genetically engineered corn, we are in danger of losing all genetic diversity, leaving the nations corn crop open to widespread destruction by a single fungus or disease.

The eggplant was probably first consumed in China around 500 A.D.  These strange looking fruits with little thorns and a bitter taste were eaten cautiously.  The Chinese believed the fruit was poisonous unless carefully prepared by a trained cook!

The radish was eaten during breakfast, lunch and dinner by early American settlers.  By the late eighteenth century, at least ten varieties of radishes were popular in home gardens.  Thomas Jefferson grew eight different varieties in his own gardens at Monticello.

The herb Elecampane is believed to have derived its name from the following story.  Legend has it the daughter of the god Zeus was gathering that particular herb when the Trojan prince, Paris, abducted her from the gardens.  This resulted in the "campaign" to recover her (the ten year struggle for the walls of Troy).   So the next time you see the beautiful flowers of this herb, remember that it was named after Helen of Troy, during the "Helen Campaign"!

In the "good old days", hollyhocks were often grown around the outhouse.  The tall flowers helped hide the unsightly structure, while the fragrant blooms acted as a natural air freshener.  Today these flowers are grown along fences, driveways and as a background plant in the flower garden.

The lima bean gets its name from the city of Lima, Peru.  Archaeologists have found evidence they were cultivated there over six thousand years ago, in what was the Indian village of Rimac.

Lettuce leaves consist of 95% water by weight.  This is what makes the lettuce crisp.  The cells high in water press against each other, producing the crunchy texture that is so desirable in the fresh leaves.

The flower called "impatiens" gets its name from the Latin word Impatiens, in reference to the ripe pods tendency to burst open at the slightest pressure, helping to aid in the dispension of its seed.

Chives have been cultivated for over 5,000 years, and while they do not have any medicinal qualities like their cousins onions and garlic, they were once thought to have magical powers.  Colonists in America often hung bunches of chives throughout the house to drive away disease and evil influences.  Luckily, dried chives made an attractive arrangement, so while they didn't protect the home, they at least added a decorative touch!

Early varieties of cucumbers often did not grow straight.  To solve this problem, the Chinese grew their cucumbers on a trellis and suspended stones from the ends of the fruit to ensure a nice, "straight" cucumber!

Europeans did not discover the spicy taste of the Cayenne pepper until Christopher Columbus returned with it from his famous visit to the "New World", where it had been used as a popular spice for hundreds of years!

The Pilgrims considered growing tomatoes an abomination - equal to dancing, card playing and theater going.  Those caught with the fruit were often displayed in the public square and ridiculed!

While the radish of today is quite small and used primarily as a garnish, the ones grown by the early Greeks and Romans often weighed between 40 and 100 pounds!

The Roman scholar Pliny once stated,  "Anise should be chewed in the morning upon awakening in order to remove all bad odors from the mouth".... a use that is still recommended today!

Eggplant was once believed to cause fever, epilepsy and insanity.  This  misconception was circulated by Sir John Mandeville, a fourteenth century traveler, who also told tales of meeting mermaids and monsters in his many journeys.

The ancient Greeks referred to marjoram as the "Joy of the Mountains".  A delicious tea made from this herb was used to cure asthma, rheumatism and toothaches.

The most popular squash grown today is the zucchini.  While the zucchini has been popular in Italy for over 300 years, it did not gain widespread recognition in North America until the 1950's.  Now it is so widely grown, that in some areas of the country, people are warned to look out for "Zucchini Fairies" .... gardeners who leave baskets of squash on neighbors doorsteps!  "Zucchini Fairies" like to appear during the middle of the night in order to dispose of their excess crops!

Lettuce has been in cultivation since at least 550 B.C.!   Herodotus tells of it being served at the royal banquets of Persian kings during this time period.

Did you know that on the average, each American consumes over 30 pounds of lettuce every year!

Flax has been used all throughout the recorded history of man.  It was used in clothing by the Swiss Lake Dwellers (the earliest Europeans for whom remains exist), the Egyptians used linen in wrapping their mummies, Christ wore linen as He lay in His tomb, Homer tells of sails made of linen in his Odyssey, and for more than two centuries, early Americans used flax to make their homemade linen and linsey-woolsey clothing.