Tag Archives: horticulture

A Renaissance painting reveals how breeding changed watermelons

Giovanni Stanchi's painting from the 17th century shows how much watermelon has changed.Christie Images LTD 2015
Giovanni Stanchi’s painting from the 17th century shows how much watermelon has changed.

Look in the bottom right corner of this painting. If you’ve never seen a watermelon like that before, you’re not alone. This 17th-century painting by Giovanni Stanchi, courtesy of Christie’s, shows a type of watermelon that no one in the modern world has seen.

Stanchi’s watermelon, which was painted sometime between 1645 and 1672, offers a glimpse of a time before breeding changed the fruit forever.

The watermelon, then and now.Christie Images LTD 2015/Shutterstock
The watermelon, then and now.

James Nienhuis, a horticulture professor at the University of Wisconsin, uses the Stanchi painting in his classes to teach about the history of crop breeding.

“It’s fun to go to art museums and see the still-life pictures, and see what our vegetables looked like 500 years ago,” he told me. In many cases, it’s our only chance to peer into the past, since we can’t preserve vegetables for hundreds of years.

The watermelon originally came from Africa, but after domestication it thrived in hot climates in the Middle East and southern Europe. It probably became common in European gardens and markets around 1600. Old watermelons, like the one in Stanchi’s picture, likely tasted pretty good — Nienhuis thinks the sugar content would have been reasonably high, since the melons were eaten fresh and occasionally fermented into wine. But they still looked a lot different.

That’s because over time, we’ve bred watermelons to have the bright red color we recognize today. That fleshy interior is actually the watermelon’s placenta, which holds the seeds. Before it was fully domesticated, that placenta lacked the high amounts oflycopene that give it the red color. Through hundreds of years of domestication, we’ve modified smaller watermelons with a white interior into the larger, lycopene-loaded versions we know today.

Of course, we haven’t only changed the color of watermelon. Lately, we’ve also been experimenting with getting rid of the seeds — which Nienhuis reluctantly calls “the logical progression in domestication.” Future generations will at least have photographs to understand what watermelons with seeds looked like. But to see the small, white watermelons of the past, they too will have to look at Renaissance art.

Further reading: Here’s what 9,000 years of breeding have done to corn, peaches, and other crops.

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This tree produces 40 different types of fruit

This tree produces 40 different types of fruit
40-fruits

An art professor from Syracuse University in the US, Van Aken grew up on a family farm before pursuing a career as an artist, and has combined his knowledge of the two to develop his incredible Tree of 40 Fruit.

In 2008, Van Aken learned that an orchard at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station was about to be shut down due to a lack of funding. This single orchard grew a great number of heirloom, antique, and native varieties of stone fruit, and some of these were 150 to 200 years old. To lose this orchard would render many of these rare and old varieties of fruit extinct, so to preserve them, Van Aken bought the orchard, and spent the following years figuring out how to graft parts of the trees onto a single fruit tree.

Working with a pool of over 250 varieties of stone fruit, Van Aken developed a timeline of when each of them blossom in relationship to each other and started grafting a few onto a working tree’s root structure. Once the working tree was about two years old, Van Aken used a technique called chip grafting to add more varieties on as separate branches. This technique involves taking a sliver off a fruit tree that includes the bud, and inserting that into an incision in the working tree. It’s then taped into place, and left to sit and heal over winter. If all goes well, the branch will be pruned back to encourage it to grow as a normal branch on the working tree.

After about five years and several grafted branches, Van Aken’s first Tree of 40 Fruit was complete.

Aken’s Tree of 40 Fruit looks like a normal tree for most of the year, but in spring it reveals a stunning patchwork of pink, white, red and purple blossoms, which turn into an array of plums, peaches, apricots, nectarines, cherries and almonds during the summer months, all of which are rare and unique varieties.

Not only is it a beautiful specimen, but it’s also helping to preserve the diversity of the world’s stone fruit. Stone fruits are selected for commercial growing based first and foremost on how long they keep, then how large they grow, then how they look, and lastly how they taste. This means that there are thousands of stone fruit varieties in the world, but only a very select few are considered commercially viable, even if they aren’t the best tasting, or most nutritious ones.

Van Aken has grown 16 Trees of 40 Fruit so far, and they’ve been planted in museums, community centres, and private art collections around the US. He now plans to grow a small orchard of these trees in a city setting.

Of course, the obvious question that remains is what happens to all the fruit that gets harvested from these trees? Van Aken told Lauren Salkeld at Epicurious:

I’ve been told by people that have [a tree] at their home that it provides the perfect amount and perfect variety of fruit. So rather than having one variety that produces more than you know what to do with, it provides good amounts of each of the 40 varieties. Since all of these fruit ripen at different times, from July through October, you also aren’t inundated.”

Read the rest of the interview here.

 

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Extinct date palm sprouts after 2,000 years

Seed of extinct date palm sprouts after 2,000 years

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
Published 4:00 am, Sunday, June 12, 2005
  • Kibbutz Katura, Israel: June 9, 2005: The date tree (center) that was succesfully germenated from a 2000 year old seed found on the ancient Jewish Archeological site of Masada. Photo by David Blumenfeld/Special to The Chronicle Photo: David Blumenfeld/Special To The
    Kibbutz Katura, Israel: June 9, 2005: The date tree (center) that was succesfully germenated from a 2000 year old seed found on the ancient Jewish Archeological site of Masada. Photo by David Blumenfeld/Special to The Chronicle Photo: David Blumenfeld/Special To The

 

2005-06-12 04:00:00 PDT Kibbutz Ketura, Israel — It has five leaves, stands 14 inches high and is nicknamed Methuselah. It looks like an ordinary date palm seedling, but for UCLA- educated botanist Elaine Solowey, it is a piece of history brought back to life.

Planted on Jan. 25, the seedling growing in the black pot in Solowey’s nursery on this kibbutz in Israel’s Arava desert is 2,000 years old — more than twice as old as the 900-year-old biblical character who lent his name to the young tree. It is the oldest seed ever known to produce a viable young tree.

The seed that produced Methuselah was discovered during archaeological excavations at King Herod‘s palace on Mount Masada, near the Dead Sea. Its age has been confirmed by carbon dating. Scientists hope that the unique seedling will eventually yield vital clues to the medicinal properties of the fruit of the Judean date tree, which was long thought to be extinct.

Solowey, originally from San Joaquin (Fresno County), teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura, where she has nurtured more than 100 rare or near-extinct species back to life as part of a 10-year project to study plants and herbs used as ancient cures.

In collaboration with the Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Center at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, named in honor of its Southern California- based benefactor, Solowey grows plants and herbs used in Tibetan, Chinese and biblical medicine, as well as traditional folk remedies from other cultures to see whether their effectiveness can be scientifically proved.

In experiments praised by the Dalai Lama, for example, Borick Center Director Sarah Sallon has shown that ancient Tibetan cures for cardiovascular disease really do work.

The San Francisco Chronicle was granted the first viewing of the historic seedling, which sprouted about four weeks after planting. It has grown six leaves, but one has been removed for DNA testing so scientists can learn more about its relationship to its modern-day cousins.

The Judean date is chronicled in the Bible, Quran and ancient literature for its diverse powers — from an aphrodisiac to a contraceptive — and as a cure for a wide range of diseases including cancer, malaria and toothache.

For Christians, the palm is a symbol of peace associated with the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. The ancient Hebrews called the date palm the “tree of life” because of the protein in its fruit and the shade given by its long leafy branches. The Arabs said there were as many uses for the date palm as there were days in the year.

Greek architects modeled their Ionic columns on the tree’s tall, thin trunk and curling, bushy top. The Romans called it Phoenix dactylifera — “the date-bearing phoenix” — because it never died and appeared to be reborn in the desert where all other plant life perished.

Now Solowey and her colleagues have brought this phoenix of the desert back to life after 2,000 years.

The ancient seeds were found 30 years ago during archeological excavations on Mount Masada, the mountaintop fortress on the shore of the Dead Sea where King Herod built a spectacular palace. When the Romans conquered Palestine and laid waste to the Temple in Jerusalem, Masada was the last stand of a small band of Jewish rebels who held out against three Roman legions for several years before committing mass suicide in A.D. 73.

Archaeologist Ehud Netzer found the seeds, which were identified by the department of botanical archaeology at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University. Then they were placed in storage, where they lay for 30 years until Sallon heard about the cache.

“When we asked if we could try and grow some of them, they said, ‘You’re mad,’ but they gave us three seeds,” she said.

Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Seed-of-extinct-date-palm-sprouts-after-2-000-2628668.php#ixzz2KrQSUEBx

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