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Tropical Fruits Shape History

July 2, 2013

by Meg Lowman

Mankind survives on the Earth only because green plants grow here.

—Anthony K. Andoh, Ghanian Ethnobotanist

In our zest to breed the most resilient crops, agriculture is fast losing the genetic diversity of many food plants. Apples and tomatoes, with their shrinking heirloom stocks, are prime examples. On the other hand, an extraordinary smorgasbord of tropical fruits still remains in the wild without genetic modification, and most never tasted by the average consumer. Some mouth-watering bites include casimiroa, longan, mabolo, durian, duku, sapodilla, rambutan, snakefruit, and soursop that have prominent roles both in nutrition and also in history as inspiration for exploration, warfare, love affairs, and global conquest.

Global exploration led to the distribution of many tropical fruits, with humans as the primary agent of distribution.  (Today, the introduction of non-native species to a new location is often  illegal.)

Breadfruit on the tree

Breadfruit on the tree

The development of the fruit-canning industry in the 19th century catapulted fruits as an important global economic driver. In the 8th century, Tang Emperor Hsuan Tsung tried to win the love of Princess Yang Kuei Fei with a gift of lychees that nearly bankrupted his empire. Malay’s Sultan of Johor was obsessed with the jackfruit — which ultimately ended his 17th century dynasty and cost him his life. Queen Victoria offered a reward to any British citizen who could successfully import delicious mangosteens during her reign in the 19th century; avocados and pineapples played similar aristocratic roles in other cultures. When Christopher Columbus first brought pineapples back to Europe from their native South America (apologies to Hawaii), it was called the “noblest of all fruits.” Halfway around the world, the pineapple-based Singapore Sling was later concocted in Singapore at the Raffles Hotel by a bartender named Ngiam Tong Boon, who invented it as a ladies’ drink.

Breadfruit was a major cause of the mutiny against Captain Bligh in 1787 when he sailed the HMS Bounty from Tahiti with a cargo of seedlings. The Polynesians survived cyclones and attacks from enemies by preserving breadfruit in banana leaves underground.

The world’s smelliest fruit is undisputedly the durian, which caused many political wrangles in Southeast Asia where most public places forbid their presence. In his book, Time for a Tiger, author Anthony Burgess describes durians “like eating a sweet raspberry blancmange in a lavatory.” Despite their horrific odor, the fruits are considered an aphrodisiac and one of nature’s most nutritious fruits, rich in vitamins B, C, and E, plus iron.

The hot and humid climate of equatorial forests supports an enormous variety of tropical edibles, many of which have impacted human history as well as enhancing our diet. The genetic stock of tropical fruits may prove critical in shaping our future, as we seek new food sources that are resilient to a warming climate.

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