Today we woke up bright and early and got ready for our second day in Costa Rica. We ate a delicious breakfast of scrambled eggs, rice and beans, avocado, and fried plantains at the same place we ate lunch the previous day. After breakfast, we headed over to Carlos and Elieth’s house to meet up and grab our shovels for a morning of planting trees on a local farm. The walk to get there took about 30 minutes, and we walked past a couple of really interesting sites. We got to see the cemetery, as well as a house with several horses and a mule. We also heard lots of howler monkeys.
Once we arrived, we got to meet the family who lives on the farm and there very cute 3-month-old baby. The farmer had lost one of his legs to cancer, so it felt good to be able to help him out. He gets carbon credits for planting trees on his farm, so we planted over 100 trees for him to build a natural barrier along a fence. It was a hot and sweaty experience, but also very rewarding.
When we returned from tree planting, we cleaned ourselves up and ate lunch at the church where we had breakfast the previous day. After lunch, we were given a couple hours to split up and explore Las Juntas and begin asking people questions relating to our projects. It was difficult to interact with most people because of the language barrier, but with some help from the translators in our group we were able to meet some amazing people and learn a lot of really interesting information. Once we had spent a good amount of time exploring, we headed to a bar and restaurant nearby called Los Mangos to cool down, get smoothies, and use the Wi-Fi.
Tonight was our first dinner with our designated host families, and we were lucky enough to both be assigned to eat dinner with some of the nicest people we have ever met. Our hosts, Esteban and Paula, spoke English which made conversing with them much easier than if we needed to translate. We ate a fantastic stew with chicken and avocado, and afterwards Esteban took us to get milkshakes. He told us about how he and his wife have lived their whole lives in Las Juntas and both graduated from the University of Costa Rica. He was very proud of his accomplishments and the different properties and businesses he owns throughout town. They were also very interested in our projects and what we are studying in school, and they gave each of us a lot of thoughtful insight from the perspective of a local. It was an amazing experience that we were all very lucky to have and we are all very much looking forward to sharing another meal with them next week.
This morning I woke up (bright and early) in my rickety top bunk perch in the Las Juntas community center. The sun was streaming through the full glass wall across from me and luscious greenery made me burst into a giddy smile. It was the first time I had seen Las Juntas in the light of day and I must say it was an awakening that fueled my excitement for the day. Sunscreen was applied, hiking boots put on and before I knew it we were gathered in the courtyard of the community center and very ready to dig in to some rice and beans. After a delicious breakfast of rice, beans, eggs and orange juice, we loaded into taxis and headed to the Las Juntas gold mines. The drive to the gold mine was an adventure in itself! Our taxis climbed steep hills surrounded by tropical forest. At the mines, my group geared up with helmets and rain boots to enter the tunnel. Working miners passed by us with heavy carts while we plodded through dark, rocky tunnels. Being in the mine made me feel very grateful for my safe life at home. Hearing the dynamite used in nearby tunnels while stumbling around in the dark made me realize how lucky I am to work where I know I am safe and how I never fear for my well-being while trying to make money. Our mine guide Bernie also challenged us near the end of our tour to make it out of the mine without using any light—just as many miners do daily. I felt like a helpless child! I truly respect the hard work the miners do to provide for themselves. After climbing through the tunnels themselves, we got a chance to see where the collected quartz in the mines is actually processed for gold. Large machines called rastras ground the material collected by miners and use mercury to amalgamate the gold. The mercury is then burned away to leave a clump of gold. It’s interesting to think about this process through the lens of sustainability and reflect on the many damaging effects of mercury use on the environment. Now we are settled in at Carlos and Elieth’s house after another delicious meal and a bit of rest time. I feel very fulfilled and peaceful after today—especially without feeling any pressure to use my phone. I’m so so grateful for this opportunity and I’m truly enthused to see what the next week and a half has in store! – CarolAnne
Waking up before 6am, something unlikely to happen again this trip, was the start of our first full day in Las Juntas, Costa Rica. We started our day the best way possible, eating gallo pinto with a tortilla, eggs, and cheese. Moving on from breakfast, we pile into taxis and take off down the road, off to the mines. Splitting up into two groups, the first put on boots and hard hats and took off into the mine under the guide of Bernie. The second group got to experience Dr. Niesenbaum howl at the howler monkeys and pictures of college age Don Ricardo. We also got to see little, new puppies; they were so cute!
The first group
returned and traded gear with the second group. Adorned in hard hats and boots,
we took off into the mine with Bernie. We were shown different shafts that have
been, or are currently being, mined. We learned that where there is quartz,
there is gold, that the gold in the mines are tiny flecks of gold, not nuggets
like you find in the west of the states, that the water in the mines is ground
water that has run down through the ground into the mines, and that walking out
of the mine in the pitch black is a serious trust exercise.
Moving on from
the mines, we went on to the area in which the gold was refined. The rock is
ground up and then moved into basins in which the ground up rock is pulverized
in water mixed with mercury, so the gold can form an amalgam with the mercury.
It is moved from basin to basin until an amalgam is formed in such a way that
it can be removed and rinsed to form a hard ball of mercury and gold, then the
mercury is burned off, leaving you with a beautiful nugget of gold.
We all piled
back into the taxis and came back to the community center for an hour of free
time before we got a lunch of rice and beans, meat (or veggies for the
vegetarians), and a salad; another DELICIOUS meal. After lunch, we moved on to
the bank to exchange our money. I realized that we can appear to be such a
large group of people when we pile into such a small building and each have to
individually interact with the people at the desks. Jenny and Taj kindly
translated for everyone who was not fluent in Spanish. We sat and waited for
everyone to exchange their money, which was so worth it because we were able to
sit in the nice cool air-conditioned bank.
We then broke out our fresh, new colones to buy ice cream and snacks on our way back to Carlos and Ellieth’s house. The welcome they greet us with when we show up is so exciting and makes me feel at home. I am so excited to tour Las Juntas later today, for more food, and the rest of the experience of being in Costa Rica! Day one and done, onto day two!! -Sydney
After a long time waiting on the security line, we all ended up meeting at our flight’s gate about 2 hours prior to our flight. At the gate, everyone was asked to explain their feelings towards the trip in one word (the one exception to this was Josh’s “totally stoked dude”), here are the results:
Josh: Totally stoked dude
Taj (Carmelito): Humbled
Don Ricardo: Liberating
Carol Ann: Excited
Cristo Ball (tentative): Juiced
Sydney C: Happy
After boarding and taxiing, it seems that our plane is about to takeoff until the pilot turns us back stating that “one of the overhead compartments isn’t closing, and I don’t have tape.” Thus, we unwillingly headed back to the terminal for 3 men to try to tape an overhead compartment closed, this process took an hour. When Andrea, Jill, Caroline, and Ben were asked their thoughts on the delay, this is what they said:
Andrea: I’m just hoping I don’t get stuck over night in Houston again
Caroline: Um, someone should’ve brought tape
Jill: I’m quite disappointed in United Airlines. I hope this will be a quick fix and we will get to Costa Rica on time.
Ben: I spent money on a movie I’m watching now for free (an unorthodox response)
We eventually make it to Houston where our two professors (Dr. Niesenbaum and Dr. Borick) ditched us for the United Club. During this time, the students bonded over food from the airport. While waiting at the gate, we all played the phone game Heads Up, Dr. Niesenbaum even participated and did quite well.
After waiting longer than expected for the next flight, we were informed that there was another delay due to passengers on a connecting flight from Los Angeles being delayed. On this flight, Dr. Borick made friends with two college students from California who said they were doing research with a sports company, Hurley, on the science behind surfing.
Astonishingly, there was a Muhlenberg graduate (class of 2012) sitting in front of us on the flight!
We finally arrived in Costa Rica with a warm welcome from Carlos. The bus ride was great and seeing Las Juntas at night excited everybody for the week to come.
Although the day was filled mostly with travel, we all went to sleep excited for the next morning and the trip ahead. I think I can speak for all of us when I say that this is going to be a great adventure!
On May 20th Professors Niesenbaum and Borick return to Las Juntas, Costa Rica with 18 students where they will be conducting community based research and learning. Students will be posting about their experiences here daily. You can also follow updates on our twitter feed @SusSolutions. Feel free to comment and share these student perspectives about the experiences they are having. To learn more about this program and other abroad experiences at Muhlenberg College see this issue of The Muhlenberg Magazine.
Whenever I visited India as a child, I would always make sure that I was a fast eater. It’s not that I enjoyed the meal so much that I would practically inhale it. It was with what came after the meal that I was more concerned. Paan. I’ve never really thought about what exactly was in Paan that made it so delicious, so my curiosity took over. As I researched the contents of Paan, I found the Areca Nut and what I discovered was a little unnerving. I discovered that a snack that was an integral part of my culture was contains addictive and potentially harmful alkaloids.
Paan is not really qualified as a food. It’s a conglomeration of sweetness wrapped in a leaf that is used as a “mouth freshener” in South Asian culture. It’s similar to that after meal mint people receive at restaurants. Paan cancontain several ingredients in it and goes by different names depending on the geographic region. These ingredients include coconut powder, sweetened rose petals, cloves, fennel, and sugar (Times of India 2018). In fact, Paan itself is such a diverse entity and has several other names associated with it. Not only is it consumed in India, but it is also consumed in China, Taiwan, Philippines and more.
The Areca Nut is mistakenly called the “betel nut” and is taxonomically known as Areca catechu L. from the Arecaceae family. A common misconception is calling this nut the “betel nut”, because oftentimes this nut is consumed with the “betel leaf” as is the case in Paan (Garg, Chaturvedi and Gupta). The Areca nut and the betel leaf come from different plants and families. This nut is found in the tropical areas of Asia, the Pacific and parts of East Africa (Garg, Chaturvedi and Gupta 2014). India, specifically, is the largest producer and consumer of this nut (Hedge and Deal 2014). Trees typically grow best in well-drained soils with sufficient rainfall and temperatures ranging from 10-40 degrees Celsius (Agrifarming). The Areca nut is actually a “drupe”, similar to other stony endocarp carrying fruits like peaches, apricots and cherries (Mozek 2017). The mature fruit resembles a mango in its size and shape (Mozek 2017).
The Areca Nut’s cultural origin is hard to pinpoint, but there are several examples in history about when its use started. It has been used since around 3,000 B.C in the Philippines when a skeleton was found with betel nut stained teeth (Malik, Chowdhury and Chauhan 2002). Chewing the nut as it mixes with saliva produces a red dye that stains the teeth. The use of this nut has been mentioned in Sanskrit medical writings dating to the 1st century A.D. This nut has several uses including as a digestive aid, an expectorant and an astringent (Times of India 2018). Culturally, the areca nut is typically offered with two betel leaves on auspicious occasions, like weddings, to symbolize loyalty and the presence of a strong bond (Bajaj 2018).
Despite it’s benefits, this nut is actually the source of addiction in parts of Asia. It’s contains certain alkaloid properties allowing the chewer to get a slight buzz or warming sensation, similar to the effects of smoking a cigarette or drinking coffee (Iverson 2017). The active molecule, arecoline, acts on nicotinic receptors, to produce stimulating effects on the nervous system. The user experiences feelings of euphoria. The nut’s addictive property is not the only harmful effect. The nut has been linked to all types of cancers like throat, laryngeal and esophageal cancers (Russo 2017). The nut itself contains a lot of carcinogens and when coupled with tobacco can lead to a variety of health issues, including tooth decay (Russo 2017). The nut can also contain teratogenic properties that can harm the development of a fetus if chewed during pregnancy (Russo 2017).
Addiction to the Areca nut is still rampant in areas of Asia. As far as my knowledge goes, no laws or rules have been passed surrounding the selling of the Areca Nut in Paan, which is probably why this is the fourth highest addictive substance in the world currently (Bowers 2016). In the US specifically, the FDA classifies the Areca Nut on the Poisonous Plants Database (Bowers 2016). More health organizations need to increase the awareness about the risks of betel nut chewing, since it seems that not a lot of people know about its carcinogenic properties. Who knew that something that can taste so good could be so deadly!
Cucumbers are a great snack at any time of the day and year, but particularly in the summer as they are full of water and very hydrating. Aside from the stereotypical usage of sliced cucumbers on the eyes for relaxation purposes, they are consumed in salads, in drinks, and as pickles.
The scientific name for cucumbers is Cucumis sativus (L.) of the Cucurbitaceae family. The Cucurbitaceae contains gourds, including pumpkins, melons and squashes, all of which grow on vines. Cucumbers are a fruit that develops from a yellow flower and contains seeds from the plant. It is more specifically classified as a pepo, which is a type of berry with a hard-outer rind and no internal divisions, even though it is often perceived, prepared and eaten as a vegetable (Toney 2017).
Cucumbers originated in South Asia where they have been cultivated for over four thousand years. India’s moist soil, plentiful shade and warmth are ideal growing conditions for this fruit. The wild form, which is very bitter tasting, still grows in the southern Himalayas. This variety was originally used by Dravidian natives for medicinal purposes. Over time, milder forms were bred and cultivated, and many countries began growing them (Storl 2016). Bees play an essential role in the pollination process. For the cucumber plant to grow, honey or bumble bees deliver pollen grains across plants from the male flowers to the female flowers. If enough pollen is delivered, the fruit will begin to grow. If there is not enough pollen delivered, then the cucumber fruit may abort or grow misshapen. For a plentiful harvest, cucumbers must be pollinated properly and grow fast to produce healthy fruits. Poorly pollinated cucumber plants are tough and bitter tasting (“Why are my cucumbers falling off, or becoming deformed?” 2011).
India still consumes cucumbers in traditional ways, especially given their cooling and refreshing qualities and the extreme heat in the pre-monsoon season. Cucumber water is very thirst quenching and raita, yogurt with grated or pickled cucumbers, is a popular dish (Storl 2016). The health benefits associated with cucumber consumption include promotion of hydration, which aids in weight loss. Cucumbers are low in calories, contain vitamin C and K, potassium and antioxidants. When applied externally, they smooth skin and heal blemishes and rashes (Link 2017). Adding cucumbers to salads, sandwiches or in water are simple ways to add flavor and increase the healthiness of your diet.
The cucumber industry in the U.S. is concerned primarily with harvesting cucumbers for pickling and fresh marketing. In 2009, the U.S. produced more than 97,500 acres of pickling cucumbers valued at over $180 million and over 46,000 acres of fresh-market cucumbers at a value of $220 million. Pennsylvania alone produced 600 acres of fresh-market cucumbers with a value of approximately $6 million (Orzolek et al 2010).
Helianthus annuus L. (Asteraceae) which is commonly known as a sunflower is also referred to as the “happy” plant. Sunflowers symbolize adoration, loyalty and longevity. The name of the sunflower comes from a Greek origin. “Helios” means sun and “anthos” means flower. There are sixty-seven species of sunflower. These plants are native to North and South America. Early on they were cultivated by Native Americans and they were domesticated as early as around 1000 B.C.
Sunflowers are now distributed around the world and have became popular in many countries. Spanish conquistadors began to export sunflowers to the rest of the world in 1500. Sunflowers were brought back to Russia by royalty, specifically Tsar Peter the Great. Production in Russia skyrocketed when the Russians found out that sunflower seed oil was not banned during lent. The Russian Orthodox Church banned many other oils so sunflower seed oil became very popular. From there Russia began to plan 2 million acres of sunflowers each year. Canada also sparked an increase in production of these plants after creating a mechanical seed crushing plant.
The makeup of a sunflower plant is intricate. Sunflowers contain bright yellow petals that surround a large center that is filled with brown seeds. These brown seeds are not yet mature and later when they do mature they turn grey. The stem and leaves of sunflowers are hairy and the stems are thick as well. Sunflowers bloom in late August through September. The bright yellow flowers are crowded together on a flat surface and this classifies the sunflower as having capitulum inflorescence. The sunflower has hundreds, or thousands of tiny flowers and these flowers are sessile and do not have a stalk.
Sunflowers have an interesting habit of heliotropism. This means that the flowers track the sun. In the morning the flowers start facing the east and they follow and face the sun throughout the day. The only time that sunflowers do not exhibit heliotropism is when seed production starts. Heliotropism halts because the plant becomes heavier and is not able to follow the sun. Therefore, the sunflowers stay facing east through the day. To remain healthy and growing the sunflowers need six to eight hours of sun a day.
Sunflower parts have many uses for humans. Sunflower seeds are very nutritious. They contain protein, vitamins A, B, and E, calcium, nitrogen and iron. Native Americans used to use sunflower seeds to make flour by grounding them. Many birds and animals enjoy consuming sunflowers seeds as well. These seeds are the main ingredient in many birdseed mixes. Sunflower petals are edible as well. Typically, they are cooked and eaten like artichokes. Also, the petals are feed to livestock. Their roots can remove radiation from soils. This technique was used to clean up the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine in 1986. Sunflower roots are utilized in herbal medicine as well to treat snake bites and spider bites. The stalks are used in production of paper and clothes and the leaves are often made into tea. This tea is used to for relieving fevers, diarrhea and for lung ailments. The tea is an astringent which means it minimizes pores, a diuretic which increases urine production and an expectorant which clears mucus.
Sunflower oil has many health benefits as well as practical applications. It can be added to soap, lubricants and candles. It is a popular vegetable oil due to having low levels of saturated fats and it can withstand high cooking temperatures. In terms of medicinal uses it can help relieve some skin conditions like hemorrhoids and ulcers. It is used as an acne treatment, lowers LDL cholesterol and helps with constipation. Furthermore, it has been said to prevent colon cancer, heart disease and reduce the symptoms of asthma and arthritis.
Sunflowers are spectacular plants with interesting pasts. They have traveled to space with astronaut Don Pettit. Sunflowers are both the national flower of Russia and the state flower of Kansas and the world’s tallest sunflower stood at thirty feet and one inch. Sunflowers are beautiful flowers and truly live up to their name as the “happy” plants.
Mimosa pudica L. (Fabaceae) is colloquially known by many names, including the shameplant, sensitive plant, touch-me-not, humble plant, and live-and-die. All of these names reflect the plant’s most curious characteristic: rapid movement in response to environmental stimuli, notably by touch, but also by shaking and electrical stimulation. Nastic movements in plants are those that are caused by environmental stimuli, M. pudica exhibits thigmonasty (rapid movement to touch stimulus) in addition to nycintasty (leaf movement in response to light/dark changes). The movement in response to touch stimulus is thought to be a means of defense from herbivores, which could be scared by the rapid movement. Additionally, the closed leaves of the plant look like a less satisfying meal, and the closed leaves expose the thorns that the plant possesses. Nyctinastic movements are thought to be a measure for water preservation, and is a trait found in other members of the Fabaceae.
The shameplant is native to Central and South America, and has been introduced to Australia, South and Southeast Asia, and many Pacific Islands, where its regarded as an invasive species. Intentionally, it is cultivated as an indoor houseplant, mainly for its curiosity value. As a weed, M. pudica affects crops, and can also be found as a forage plant in pastures (where its presence is tolerated/valued, unlike in the middle of a crop field). The plant is shade-intolerant, and grows mostly in nutrient-poor conditions. Like many of its family members, the plant forms a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen fixing bacteria, which lives in its root nodules. These bacteria convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form usable for the plant.
The sensitive plant is used in many capacities in traditional medicine. In India, pulped leaves are used for glandular swelling, and leaf sap is a treatment for sinus disorders and sores. In the Republic of the Congo, the entire plant is pulped and applied as a treatment for pain in the body side and kidneys. In Senegal, the leaves are used as a treatment for lumbago and nephritis. In Southeast Asia, the plant is used for sleep disorders.
More generally, traditional medicine also uses M. pudica to treat dysentery, urinary complaints, snake bites, glandular tumors, and uterine cancer. The root extract has antibacterial activity, and is additionally thought of as an aphrodisiac. The seeds have purgative and emetic properties. The green parts of the plant are used as analgesics, antispasmodics, anti-asthmatics, mild sedatives, and antidepressants. High doses can be toxic, and the plant is not yet used in Western medicine as pharmaceutical companies are still researching its properties. Scientific studies have shown that the plant has properties of a diuretic, it can depress duodenal contractions, promote regeneration of nerves, and reduce menorrhagia. In terms of environmental healing, the plant has been shown to have the potential for phytoremediation of arsenic polluted areas.
The plant has been used in memory research, to test if plants can habituate to a stimulus and remember that behavior over time. Experiments have showed that plants dropped from a non-harmful distance learn to habituate to the stimulus, and stop closing their leaves in response to the dropping stimulus. However, this is not due to exhaustion- once a novel stimulus, like shaking, is applied, the plant will close its leaves once more. Once the plants habituated to the dropping stimulus, they were left alone. 28 days later, the plants still “remembered” that the drop was a non-harmful stimulus, and upon being dropped did not close their leaves. Another study was done similarly, but tested plants grown in high vs low light conditions. Since the closing of the plant’s leaves impedes photosynthesis, researchers hypothesized that those plants grown in low light conditions would habituate to dropping faster than their grown in high light counterparts. This hypothesis proved true, and even upon moving the plants to different light conditions, the plants still “remembered” that the drop was not a stimulus worthy of reaction.
This curious plant grown for its interesting behaviors, is also and invasive species, weed in crop fields, forage plant, medicinal plant, plant consciousness research tool, and more. The sensitive plant M. pudica occupies a large varieties of functions and ecological niches, and has enchanted many people with its bashful behavior.
Avocados are a popular fruit consumed in a variety of ways including on toast underneath a sunny-side-up egg, on a rice cake, sliced up in a salad, featured on BLT sandwiches and as the infamous primary ingredient of guacamole. The scientific name of the tree that bears avocados is Persea Americana Mill. (Lauraceae) which can grow up to 65 feet tall. The most common type of avocado is the Hass, however, there are about 500 varieties of avocados, including the Bacon, Fuerte, Gwen, Lamb Hass, Pinkerton, Reed and Zutano. Different types of avocados vary in size, color and shape. Avocados are classified as a fruit, according to the University of California Agriculture & Natural Resources (“Name, Taxonomy, Botany”, 2018). Fruits have tough outer layers, a middle fleshy layer and encase a seed. Because the avocado is a soft, fleshy fruit with only one tough seed, it is a single-seeded berry as opposed to a drupe. This seed referred to as the “pit” can be buoyed in a cup of water by toothpicks to grow an avocado tree. When picking an avocado, the ripest ones will be browner in color and feel soft when squeezed (Wellness 2017).
Avocados originated in south-central Mexico and were cultivated as early as 500 B.C. Spanish conquistadores originally called this fruit “aguacate” while others called them “alligator pears” given their bumpy green, leathery outer-coat. The first English-language mention of the avocado was by Sir Henry Sloane in 1696, and then in 1871, Judge R.B. Ord of Santa Barbara introduced trees from Mexico into the U.S. Avocados were commercially grown in the early 1900s and by the 1950s, California was the main state shipping them. In 1935, Rudolph Hass patented the “Hass” avocado and it expanded the industry, becoming the leading California variety by the late 1970s. California remains the leading producer of avocados, warranting it the nickname of “the avocado capital of the nation”. Avocado trees grow year-round and yield about 200 pounds of fruit, averaging about 500 pieces (“History of California Avocados” 2018).
Given the extensive history and popularity of the avocado, there is some folklore surrounding this fruit. According to Aztec legend, a man named Seriokai living in Guiana, a country in South America, loved avocados and usually spent the day gathering them. One day while he was out, a tapir wandered into his camp and made Seriokai’s wife fall in love with it. The next day, Seriokai and his wife went out to collect avocados. As he climbed down one tree, his wife hit him over the head, causing him to fall and sever his leg. She ran away with the tapir and the basket of avocados. A neighbor found Seriokai and helped him heal, replacing his leg with a wooden stump. Seriokai then followed the trail of growing avocado trees that had grown as they fell out of his wife’s basket. He found the runaway couple at the end of the world, and shot the tapir in the eye. The tapir leaped off the edge from the pain, and Seriokai’s wife followed her love and jumped as well. Seriokai also jumped off, and the three are said to have turned into Orion (Seriokai), Pleiades (the wife) and Hyades (the tapir with a bleeding eye) in the sky (Neal 2017).
Aside from this and other entertaining myths, Avocados also provide substantial health benefits. Although avocadoes are high in fats, majority of the fat is oleic acid which is a monounsaturated fatty acid, or a “healthy fat”. It has also been linked to lowering LDL cholesterol and increasing HDL cholesterol (Gunnars 2018). Their high potassium and antioxidant content support healthy blood pressure levels and eye health. The antioxidants are also anti-inflammatory agents (“Avocado” 2005). Avocado oil can soothe and heal skin, treating sclerosis and psoriasis. In addition to medicinal uses, avocados are also used as scents for bath and shower gels and hand soaps (Palsdottir 2016).
The history of cultivation of the grape is thought to be as long as that of human civilization, experts have found evidence of grape cultivation dating back to 6500 BC. All grapes are part of the family Vitacea which encompasses about 600 species of grape, the primary genus used in food and
wine production in Vitis, which includes 60 species, 12 of which are used to produce wines. Of these grapes, the European grape, Vitis vinifera L has been the most influential to the globalization of grape and wine culture (Trinklein, 2013). V. vinifera is indigenous to central Europe, southwestern Asia and the Mediterranean. In 4000 BC, grape cultivation had spread from Transcaucasia, through the Nile Delta to Asia Minor. (Trinklein, 2013). V. vinifera has since been introduced to all parts of the world, spreading with historical migration events, most significantly: colonization and imperialism. Grape cultivation has accompanied human advancements, impacting civilization and ultimately creating global interest further acting spread viticulture.
While grapes have been cultivated for multiple purposes, the primary reason is its use in the wine industry: approximately one fourth of the grapes produced today are used to make wine (Trinklein, 2013). The first archaeological evidence of wine production was found in jars near the Zagros Mountains in Iran, the jars were estimated to be approximately 7,400 years old. Archeologists at the site were able to identify the contents from tartaric acid profiles, which are associated with grapes. It is thought that these jars were used to make wine because of another compound from within the jar, Terebinth tree resin. Terebinth tree resin is an additive used to preserve wine in ancient times. Archeological evidence for the use of wine as medicine was found in the pyramid of pharaoh, Scorpion I. In this tomb, archaeologists found medicine vials containing plant compounds infused with wine, it is thought that the Egyptians knew naturally occurring plant compounds would remain active when dissolved in alcoholic medium. These medicines would then be applied or consumed to treat various ailments (Borrell, 2009).
Treated Through the Grapevine
The medicinal properties of V. vinifera are not just limited to its uses in wine, Europeans would take the sap from the grapevines and use it to treat wounds. Today, it is known that the various parts of the plant have different medicinal properties. The seeds may also be helpful in limiting the amount of dietary fat absorbed by the body. Leaves from the V. vinifera plant may be used as an astringent to minimize pores and improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels. The fruit itself has historically been used to treat a number of ailments from cholera and cancer to nausea and liver disease. Grapes are high in potassium and as a result can counteract some of the effects of a high sodium diet. Additionally, the fruit may have different uses depending on its condition, i.e. ripeness, dried, and skin color. Most notably is the presence of the polyphenol resveratrol, which is found in the skin of red grapes and used to reduce blood pressure and LDL levels (Ware, 2017).
Recently, the medicinal properties of wine has caught public attention with various claims being made as to the benefits of the beverage. Many of these claims are associated with the presence of resveratrol in wine. As a result, these benefits are most closely related to red wine consumptions. Resveratrol has been proven to have cardiovascular and chemopreventive properties (Baur and Sinclair, 2006). In another study resveratrol was found to improve the function of metabolic pathways (Lagouge et al., 2006). These research findings have supported the role of resveratrol in increasing human lifespan. This makes sense in light other scientific findings, in a GWAS (Genome Wide Association) looking for trends associated with long lifespans (over 100), found metabolic pathways to be important for longevity (Zeng et al., 2016).
From the Roots of Thy Neighbor
The grape species, Vitis vinifera was first introduced to the Americas by European colonists, but the genus was prevalent and thriving long before the arrival of the Europeans to the American coasts. These grapes, while hearty and much more resistant to diseases and various weather conditions, lacked much of the flavor the European colonists were used to. As a result, the Europeans continued making wine using V. vinifera instead of using the American varieties. Not long after the colonization of the Americas were the crops destroyed by the introduction of the American phylloxera to France.
Phylloxera are insects that lay their eggs in grape leaves and ultimately destroying the crop. While the European grapes were being ravaged by this insect, it was found that the American grapes, while distasteful had developed a resistance to the pests. Soon after this discovery, the grape cultivators created a hybrid grape, where they grafted the fruits of V. vinifera to the rootstock of an American grape. This cross resulted in a more resistant crop with the same taste (Clark, 2015) .
Presently, one of the largest issues facing domesticated grapes is climate change. While grafting has proved to be successful against the original threats of disease and parasites, the industry pressure of maintaining a true-breeding product increases the susceptibility of disease and decreases the crop’s resilience. There still a lot of diversity within the species, V. vinifera, that has been minimally explored, the future and health of this industry relies on the exploration and cultivation of different subspecies of this diverse group (Myles et al., 2010). The research group, VitisGen is currently looking into ways to increase the efficiency of grape production using genomic analysis to predict beneficial traits that produce more cost effective and resistant grapes (Jefferies, 2015).
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