New World Plants Make Small Splash in 16th Century Europe

About 127 new plants came across the Atlantic from the Americas during the first hundred years after Columbus. These plants diffused through the Old World at different rates, mostly from the port city of Seville, where the plants initially arrived.

Maize had been established in Spain and North Africa within 20 years of Columbus’s final voyage. From there it spread to Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, and all the way to China where it supplied about one-tenth of the grain supply. Peanuts and cassava, originally South American crops, were beneficial in West and Central Africa.

The mild climate of the Mediterranean provided ecological niche for the introduction and adaptation of new plants. It was here that New World plants had their earliest acceptance in Europe. Crops including maize, squash, beans, sweet potatoes, prickly pear cactus, and agave were easily established, accepted, and integrated into the local cuisines.  Some crops were  so similar to known plants that they became substitutes in traditional dishes. Such was the case for the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), which often replaced the fava bean (Vicia faba),  present since Roman times. Maize flour became a substitute for millet in the preparation of polenta, and ancient Roman dish.

Other crops were not such an easy sell to Europeans. The sixteenth century tomato was little like the delicious, juicy red fruit we know today. It was small and hard, and very bitter. Europeans did not know how to prepare it. Eventually, Italians adopted the method of grinding it into a puree from the Aztecs. It was Italian gardeners who bred the tomato into the magnificent and varied fruit we know today.

The tomato and other solanaceae plants (peppers and potatos) were outright rejected by most of Europe because they were recognized, by their flowers and leaves, as being members of the poisonous group called “the nightshades”. Plants such as mandrake, henbane, and belladonna were hallucinogenic plants used by witches and resembled these New World plants .  They were believed to cause leprosy and syphilis, and later aquired fame as aphrodisiacs.
While American plants arrived in Europe during the sixteenth century, they did not become a significant part of the European diet for two-hundred years. When they did enter gardens and dishes, they were merely additional or replacement ingredients in traditional meals. With the exception of the potato, a field crop, which became a major player in the diet of seventeenth century Ireland, so far I’ve failed to find significant impact on Northern European diets and agriculture.

The cottage garden under went very little change as far as content. What I have found, that is of interest, is that the design began to change. After the Plague, when the population dropped and land was freed up, the cottage garden was a main source of food, especially for the peasant population. What bit of land they had, they filled to the brim with herbs and vegetables for various uses – medicinal, culinary, fragrance, etc… When one plant reached the end of its life or was harvested another took its place with little attention to order or aesthetics .

With an increase in imports during the sixteenth century, more flowers were being introduced to England, and some were cherished not for just their utilitarian value, but for their intrinsic beauty as well. This led to gardens becoming more organized. The slap-dash design of the English garden that we are most familiar with was slowly being abandoned for a bit of order. Flowers moved from among the vegetables and were placed around the beds as boarders instead. In some cases, they were given their very own beds altogether.


4 thoughts on “New World Plants Make Small Splash in 16th Century Europe

  1. Pingback: Interesting posts | Just Food Now "News and Views"

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  3. Pingback: Creating a Renaissance Era Cottage Garden in New England | John Gerber

  4. Pingback: UMass to plant medieval kitchen garden |

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