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:

Clark L. American bugs almost wiped out France’s wine industry. 2015 Mar 19. [Internet].  [cited 2018 Oct 8]. Available from:

Jeffries AM. Developing the grapes of the future. Growing Produce. 2015 Aug 3. [Internet]. [cited 2018 Oct 8]. Available from:

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:

Trinklein D. Grapes: a brief history. 2013. Integrated Pest Management, University of Missouri. 2013 Aug 7. [Internet]. [cited 2018 Oct 9]. Available from:

Ware M. Grapes: Health benefits, tips, and risks. Medical News Today. 2017 Nov 15 [Internet]. [cited 2018 Oct 8]. Available from:

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


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.




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


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]