Raised on The Areca Nut: An Asian Tradition with Unexpected Consequences – Priya Tyagaraj

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!



1. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/life-style/health-fitness/photo-stories/paan-lovers-here-are-5-reasons-why-this-mouth-freshener-is-good-for-you/photostory/64201716.cms
2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4080659/
3. http://ijbssnet.com/journals/Vol_5_No_10_September_2014/6.pdf
4. https://www.agrifarming.in/arecanut-cultivation/
5. https://ifpti.org/fellowship-program/published-works/u-s-food-regulators-perceptions-of-areca-nut-as-food-and-religious-exemption/
6. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/135562101200100147
7. https://theculturetrip.com/asia/articles/why-people-in-asia-are-addicted-to-chewing-the-deadly-betel-nut/
8. https://www.livestrong.com/article/129158-effects-betel-nut-chewing/
9. https://food.ndtv.com/food-drinks/why-is-the-betel-leaf-paan-patta-so-significant-in-hindu-traditions-1739170
10. https://www.healthline.com/health/betel-nut-dangers
11. https://www.amazon.com/S-G-U-Supari-Areca-Betel-Grams/dp/B06XFFSM11
12. https://telanganatoday.com/betel-nut-recipe
13. https://www.npr.org/2018/06/17/617682446/for-women-in-papua-new-guinea-income-from-selling-betel-nut-can-come-at-heavy-pr

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Dilly on the dill: “Cukes” for relaxation and hydration by Sarah Dilly

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).


Link, R. (2017). 7 Health benefits of eating cucumbers. Healthline. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/7-health-benefits-of-cucumber#section8

Orzolek, M., Kime, L.F., Bogash, S.M., & Harper, J.K. (2010). Cucumber Production. Agriculture Alternatives. Retrieved from https://extension.psu.edu/cucumber-production

Storl, W.D. (2016). Cucumber (Cucumis sativus). Retrieved from http://publicism.info/gardening/curious/10.html

Toney, S. (2017). Is a Cucumber a fruit or a vegetable? The Free Range Life. Retrieved from https://thefreerangelife.com/is-a-cucumber-a-fruit/

(2008). Cucumbers: 9 things you didn’t know. WebMD. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/9-healthy-facts-about-cucumbers

(2011). Why are my cucumbers falling off, or becoming deformed? GardenSouth. Retrieved from http://gardensouth.org/2011/07/21/why-are-my-cucumber-falling-off-or-becoming-deformed/














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Helianthus annuus, the Sunflower, a symbol of adoration, loyalty and longevity by Courtney Allen

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.

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Can’t (not) Touch This – The humble, sensitive shameplant – Mimosa pudica L. (Fabaceae) by Francine Koitz

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.





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Known as Aguacate or Alligator Pears: The Folklore, Food and Health Benefits of the Avocado – Sara Dilly

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).










Gunnars, K. (2018). 12 proven health benefits of avocados. Healthline. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/12-proven-benefits-of-avocado#section2

Neal, V. (2017). Two ancient foods: the avocado and millet – their folklore. Multiracial Media. Retrieved from http://multiracialmedia.com/two-ancient-foods-avocado-millet-folklore/

Palsdottir, H. (2016). 9 evidence-based health benefits of avocado oil. Healthline. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/9-avocado-oil-benefits

Wellness, F. (2017). 6 things you probably didn’t know about avocados. Huffington Post. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/08/26/avocado-health-facts-didnt-dont-know_n_3786419.html

(2005). Avocado. WebMD. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-890/avocado

(2016). Avocado – name, taxonomy, botany. International Tropical Fruits Network. Retrieved from http://www.itfnet.org/v1/2016/05/avocado-name-taxonomy-botany/

(2018). The history of California avocados. California Avocado Commission. Retrieved from https://www.californiaavocado.com/avocado101/the-california-difference/avocado-history







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Grapes, the Wine-iest of Fruits by Kerry Anne Rogers

Back to the Roots: an Ancient Cultivation

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

Image of grape cultivation and wine production from Ramesses II’s Temple.
Source: Egyptian-Image03.jpg

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.

Image of world map with each dot representing a location where V. vinifera has been cultivated. Source: map_of_Vitis_vinifera.jpg

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.

Figure 3: Image of American phylloxera
Source: Dactylosphaera_vitifolii_1_meyers_1888_v13_p621.png

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) .

: Image of American phylloxera larvae in grape leaves.
Source: 9ff98142-9c2d-11e6-9654-6e2b0a6d20cd_1280x720.jpg

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).


Baur JA, Sinclair DA. 2006. Therapeutic potential of resveratrol: the in vivo evidence. Nature Reviews Drug Discovery [Internet]. [cited 8 Oct 2018];5(6):493–506. Available from: doi:10.1038/nrd2060

Borrell B. The origin of wine. Scientific American. 2009 Aug 20. [Internet]. [cited 8 Oct 2018]. Available from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-origin-of-wine/

Clark L. American bugs almost wiped out France’s wine industry. Smithsonian.com. 2015 Mar 19. [Internet].  [cited 2018 Oct 8]. Available from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/american-bugs-almost-wiped-out-frances-wine-industry-180954619/

Jeffries AM. Developing the grapes of the future. Growing Produce. 2015 Aug 3. [Internet]. [cited 2018 Oct 8]. Available from: https://www.growingproduce.com/fruits/grapes/developing-the-grapes-of-the-future/

Lagouge M, Argmann C, Gerhart-Hines Z, Meziane H, Lerin C, Daussin F, Messadeq N, Milne J, Lambert P, Elliott P, Geny B, Laakso M, Puigserver P, Auwerx J. 2006. Resveratrol improves mitochondrial function and protects against metabolic disease by activating sirt1 and pgc-1α. Cell. [Internet]. [accessed 2018 Oct 8];127(6):1109–1122. Available from: doi:10.1016/j.cell.2006.11.013

Myles S, Boyko AR, Owens CL, Brown PJ, Grassi F, Aradhya MK, Prins B, Reynolds A, Chia J-M, Ware D, Bustamante, CD, Buckler ES. 2011. Genetic structure and domestication history of the grape. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. [Internet]. [accessed 2018 Oct 8];108(9):3530–3535. Available from: https://muhlenberg.on.worldcat.org/oclc/5552053985

Trinklein D. Grapes: a brief history. 2013. Integrated Pest Management, University of Missouri. 2013 Aug 7. [Internet]. [cited 2018 Oct 9]. Available from: https://ipm.missouri.edu/MEG/2013/8/Grapes-A-Brief-History/

Ware M. Grapes: Health benefits, tips, and risks. Medical News Today. 2017 Nov 15 [Internet]. [cited 2018 Oct 8]. Available from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/271156.php

Zeng Y, Nie C, Min J, Liu X, Li M, Chen H, Xu H, Wang M, Ni T, Li Y, et al. 2016. Novel loci and pathways significantly associated with longevity. Scientific Reports [Internet]. [Internet]. [accessed 2018 Oct 8];6(1). Available from: doi:10.1038/srep21243


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Rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum) in the family Sapinadaceae (soapberries) is one of my favorite fruits – Jennifer Vu

I always grew up eating fruits in my Vietnamese household: longan, lychee, durian, jackfruit, dragon fruit, mangosteen, guava and rambutan. I was raised in the suburbs of Pennsylvania in the little town Hatfield where we would have to travel to Asian supermarkets in Cheltenham, PA weekly to get our dose of fruit. These fruits were as common as apples, oranges and bananas to me, but there were weeks where these more “exotic” fruits were not available. To me they were and still are delicacies.

Rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum) in the family Sapinadaceae (soapberries) is one of my favorite fruits! Rambutan refers to the tree of which the fruit grows on and also the fruit that is produced from the tree. The word “rambutan” is derived from the Malay-Indonesian word “rambut” meaning hair, referring to the many hair-like protrusions from the fruit. In Vietnam, the fruit is called chôm chôm meaning messy hair. Rambutan is native to the Malay-Indonesian region and other regions of Southeast Asia where they thrive in their harvest due to the humid habitat optimal for their growth. In the 13th and 15th centuries, Arab traders introduced rambutan into Zanzibar and Pemba of East Africa. In the 19th century, the Dutch, who were colonizers of Southeast Asia at the time, introduced rambutan from Southeast Asia to South America then distribution to tropical Americas occurred.

Rambutan is a round to oval-seeded berry that is 3-6 cm long and 3-4 cm broad. They are typically grown in clusters of 10-20 fruits. They have an interesting appearance where they have been compared to the looks of a sea urchin because they have a leathery red skin and hair like extensions. Within the skin, there is contained the edible fruit that is white and has a similar texture to grapes. Within the white fruit, there is a seed that typically is not eaten, but has health benefits.

Since the skin is not edible, to eat rambutan, you would first remove the skin by lightly pinching the fruit until the peel breaks in the middle. An alternative would be to use a knife to cut open the fruit. Then discard the peel and then eat around the seed in the middle of the white fruit.

Rambutan is closely related to other tropical fruits such as lychee and longan because their fruits are all white. The differentiating factor is the skins of each of the fruits. Lychee has more is similar in that it is red, but there are not hair like extensions while longan has a thinner brown-colored skin.

The edible fruit has many benefits. It has a large amount of vitamin C, important for keeping the immune system healthy by flushing out toxins. Rambutan is also a good source of copper that keeps blood vessels, immune system, bones and red blood cells at peak conditions. Another health benefit is a good source of iron by contributing to maintenance and production of red blood cells. There is high source of fiber and has antiseptic qualities aiding to fight off infection.

In addition to the edible rambutan fruit, there are many other uses of this plant. The leaves can be used for hair health by mashing the them into a liquid and applying to your hair. When you boil the leaves and eat them, they can treat fevers and relieve headaches and migraines. The seeds are used for skincare by mashing seeds into a powder form to even out the skin’s complexion. Also in a powder form and mixed with drinks, the seed can help with diabetes by maintaining blood sugar.

The edible fruit has many benefits. It has a large amount of vitamin C, important for keeping the immune system healthy by flushing out toxins. Rambutan is also a good source of copper that keeps blood vessels, immune system, bones and red blood cells at peak conditions. Another health benefit is a good source of iron by contributing to maintenance and production of red blood cells. There is high source of fiber and has antiseptic qualities aiding to fight off infection.









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The Reishi Mushroom by Olivia Waldron

The Reishi Mushroom

Though not a plant the Reishi mushroom,  Ganoderma lucidum C. (Ganodermataceae) has recently caught the attention of the health food world even though it has been used for its medicinal purposes for over 2000years. In Chinese, the mushroom is called the “lingzhi” mushroom, which translates to “spirit mushroom, “divine mushroom” and “mushroom of immortality”. The lingzhi mushroom was discovered during the Shu Dynasty and was referred to as a superior herb.

This mushroom was said to be safe to eat as a daily “herb” without having any negative side effects. Although it was widely known for its medicinal benefits, it was not used by everyone because it was not accessible. It was very expensive and only the nobility was able to purchase and use it. Today, we know that in large amounts this mushroom is pathogenic to trees and has negative side effects to humans- so not such a superior herb.

The Ganodermataceae family includes about 200 species of the reishi mushroom. The family has specific characteristics including a shiny outer surface and an extensive and thick extracellular matrix (ECM) at the molecular level. The ECM is what makes the outer coating of the mushroom hard and able to withstand environmental challenges. The reishi mushroom grows in tropical climates and wooded areas. It can be found growing up the sides of trees and along logs on the forest floor. Since the mushroom can grow in a variety of wooded areas and can look very similar, it makes taxonomy difficult. More recently, scientists have implemented DNA sequencing in order to more accurately categorize the different species.    

The reishi is sold at many health food stores in a variety of ways. It is sold as capsules, pills or powders. It can be sold whole so that it can be infused into tea or even alcohol as “reishi spirits”. It has a very bitter taste, making the capsules the most popular form. Some of the reported benefits of taking these reishi capsules or teas include treatments for anti-inflammation, autoimmune disorder, and cancer. The reishi is also reported to aid in lowering blood pressure, improving circulation, improving concentration and potential anti-malaria properties.

Go out and try some reishi!   


-Olivia Waldron


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Wolf Peach or Love Apple: Our Complicated Relationship with the Tomato

This is the time of year when I cannot seem to get my fill of fresh tomatoes.  I place thinly cut slices on my morning toast adding just a touch of salt.  For lunch, I layer thicker slices on my bread with pickles, and a bit of mayo and horseradish.  For dinner, I dice them and add them to my pasta with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper, and fresh basil.   This becomes my almost daily routine every August, but I know this moment is fleeting.  Soon my garden and other local sources of freshly grown and heirloom varieties will be depleted.  All that will be left are the hard, flavorless supermarket tomatoes that I refuse to eat leaving me craving the delectable tomatoes of summer.

The tomato, Solanum lycopersicum L. in the Solanacae family, was not always craved; in fact it was something that was once universally avoided.  This is because so many members of the Solanaceae  or nightshade family are very poisonous, and the tomato was assumed to be so as well. This is reflected in its original scientific first name or genus, Lycopersicon, which translates as “Wolf Peach” inferring that it was something dangerous to eat.  But we now know that although the plant’s leaves contain toxic compounds to protect it from insect and pathogen damage, the tomato is anything but poisonous.  Statesman/horticulturist Robert Gibbon Johnson of Salem, NJ was one of the first to make this case to the public back in 1820 when he vowed to eat tomatoes on the courthouse steps.  According to Salem County Historical Society as he lifted the tomato to his mouth he said “To help dispel the tall tales, the fantastic fables that you have been hearing … and to prove to you that it is not poisonous I am going to eat one right now”.  As the crowd watched in angst, he took a bite.  He lived.  The crowd cheered! The acceptance of the tomato as good food began to spread.  This was also helped by Thomas Jefferson who planted them in his own garden.  By 1897 Joseph Campbell had begun to can them as tomato soup.

The tomato – Solanum lycopersicum L. (Solanaceae)

A common misconception is that the tomato comes from Italy known for its red sauces and pizza, but this aspect of Italian cuisine developed in more recent history. The tomato actually originated or is native to South America evolving over time from a plant referred to as “pimp” or Solanum pimpinellifolium.  This wild tomato with its pea size fruits is the genetic

Solanum pimpinellifolium or “Pimp” (photo by Rachel Shuler / Alamy Stock Photo)

ancestor of the tomatoes that we eat today.   The early tomato spread throughout south and central America changing along the way as human’s and the environment selected for different characteristics.  It was first developed as a crop by the Nahua in Mexico around 500 BCE where they referred to it as Tomatl.  Spanish conquistadors brought it back to Europe in the late 14 and 1500s where it then spread throughout Europe.  In contrast to its unsavory name, Wolf Peach, the French came to call it ‘pomme d’amour’ or love apple, a name I much prefer.  Some say this name came from its presumed aphrodisiac qualities.  Others have suggested that the tomato so enriched the nutrition of the European diet they experienced increased energy thereby inciting amorous behavior.

Whether a tomato is a fruit or vegetable is often debated.  A fruit is defined as seed-bearing structure that develops from the ovary of a flowering plant.  Vegetables are all other edible plant parts including roots, leaves and stems. So from a botanical perspective, the tomato is clearly a fruit; in fact it is technically a berry.  We are all familiar with its seeds while the “meat” of the tomato is actually the ovary wall.  However, the decision on how to classify the tomato has not always considered the perspective of botanists especially in the world of politics.  In 1893 this debate made it all the way to the Supreme Court in consideration of the Tariff Act of 1883 that placed a duty or tax on all fresh vegetables.  Those schooled in botany new quite rightly that the tomato as a fruit should be exempt from this tax.  However, the Supreme Court ruled differently as Justice Horace gray speaking for the entire court stated that “…despite what botanists say, tomatoes are vegetables because they are not eaten for dessert and should therefore be taxed.”   In 1981, the same issue made it to the presidential level when Ronald Reagan proclaimed that ketchup, because it was made from tomatoes, was a vegetable and should be counted as such when assessing the nutrition of school lunches.  This slight against the botanists and the children that relied on school lunches for nourishment would provide the US government $1 billion in annual savings in the costs for subsidized meals for students from low-income families because it eliminated the need to add actual vegetables.

There is a rich folklore associated with tomatoes.  They came to represent the sanctity of the home as freshly jarred tomatoes would be placed on fireplace hearths for good luck.  The tomato-like pin cushion that many of us remember from our childhood was similarly a good luck charm. Another cultural tradition involving the tomato is the festival called La Tomatina that is held in the Valencian town of Buñol, Spain. Each year thousands assemble in the streets there to engage in what is referred to as the world’s largest food fight.  There they throw more than 100 metric tons of over-ripe tomatoes at each other filling the streets with pureed tomato.  Attending this event has made it on to my bucket list.

La Tomatina in Buñol, Spain

Today, tomatoes comprise a $4.2 billion dollar industry.  Americans consume about 80 pounds a year.  This represents the greatest contribution of vitamins to our diet.  However, only 18 of those 80 pounds are fresh tomatoes.  The majority of what we consume is in the form of processed foods such as sauces, soups, stews, and yes…ketchup.  The tomato is also the #1 home grown crop.  There are hundreds of colors and sizes.  Today, many of these are heirloom varieties that are grown from seeds that have been passed down for generations.  They are a return to the past offering us unique and intense flavors and sizes with tender flesh and skin. The names of these varieties such as Black Krim, Caspian Pink, Brandywine, Green Tiger, and Homley Homer are as diverse as the color and form of the tomatoes themselves.  Most importantly they spare us from those tasteless, tough skinned supermarket tomatoes.

What is with those supermarket tomatoes?  They are tough and tasteless even in the summer.  This is because these tomatoes come from large-scale producers that use varieties that are bred to withstand mechanical harvesting and transportation.  They are often picked, stored, and transported in an unripened state, and then gassed with ethylene, the very same ripening compound that plants use, to initiate the ripening process.  Most supermarkets have to maintain year-long contracts with these large scale growers; that is why we still get these plastic-like tomatoes in the summer.  I say, don’t eat them!  Buy fresh from local producers or grow your own.  You can also eat your Pomme d’amours like I do, only in the summer and as much as you can until they are gone.

-Rich Niesenbaum

[all images from Creative Commons unless otherwise noted]

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On Plants and People

This is a blog about the relationships between plants and people written by Rich Niesenbaum and his students in his course Cultural and Economic Botany  at Muhlenberg College.  Check back weekly for new posts.   Suggestions, comments, and submitted contributions are welcomed.

Farmers Market
Bluffton Farmers Market in South Carolina
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