- BBC Food Programme on wheat, with the authors of Amber Waves and The Man Who Tried to Feed the World.
- Tides of History podcast on livestock domestication with Prof. Greger Larson. He thinks “domestication” should be used as a descriptor of a state rather than a label for a process. He also thinks that animals became “domesticated” basically only once (except for pigs).
- A citrus fruit you never heard of is crucial to Japanese cuisine.
- Bringing back heirloom rice and other traditional crops in the Sea Islands. And more.
- Building back better: from 200 food systems recommendation to 41 no regrets actions. And why we need them NOW!
- A Peruvian peasant organization goes digital.
- Huge book on strengthening seed systems in South Asia.
- Nice CGN video on seed processing in genebanks.
- How can businesses value biodiversity? Here come the guidelines.
If you listened to my podcast How the chilli pepper conquered China, you may be wondering, if you care about these things as I do, why there is a chilli species called Capsicum chinense.
The chilli didn’t reach China until the 1570s or thereabouts, and capsicums in the wild are restricted to the Americas, yet C. chinense is a perfectly valid species name. Indeed, many of the hottest peppers in the world have the distinction of belonging to that species, which also includes the more familiar Habanero and Scotch Bonnet varieties.
Start searching, and you learn that the species was described and named by Nikolaus Joseph von Jacquin in 1776. He was a Dutch scientist who ended up working for the Austrian crown and undertook an impressive early collecting trip in the Caribbean. Von Jacquin’s family was highly regarded in Vienna, where Mozart taught his daughter piano and wrote songs for his son. He was also one of the earliest promoters of the Linnean system of binomial nomenclature, and enjoyed a long friendship and correspondence with Linnaeus.
A most difficult taxonomic morass
There are five domesticated species of Capsicum (and some hybrids) and three of them — C. annuum (by far the most common), C. frutescens (Tabasco, and not a lot else) and C. chinense — are not easy to tell apart. Most descriptions focus on the number of flowers that grow from the base of each leaf, 2–5 in chinense as opposed to only a single flower in annuum. The three interbreed to varying extents and back in 1993 one expert said their classification “has been and continues to be a most difficult taxonomic morass”. Modern molecular methods back that up; the three arise from a single ancestor and are one another’s closest relatives.
Von Jacquin’s description does not say why he thought it was from China. It does say, roughly, “I saw [them] cultivated on the island of Martinique, and seeds used in cooking.”
Von Jacquin seems to have described a cultivated variety growing the gardens of Schönbrunn Palace outside Vienna. Almost 200 years later, the species was identified in the wild
Paul Smith and Charles B. Heiser Jr did an exhaustive study of wild and weedy capsicums from all over, in the course of which they found that some plants from Central and South America did not fit into any of the species they had previously recognised. Though it apparently piqued them to admit it, these plants clearly belonged to what they called Capsicum sinense.
Smith and Heiser offered an “emended” description that places special emphasis on the 3–5 flowers at each node and a marked constriction at the base of the calyx. They then say:
It is unfortunate that the earliest name for this American plant appears to be Jacques’ [sic] C. sinense (as “chinense”). The plant shown in his plate, although showing only two pedicels at the nodes is almost identical to some of our collections. Our Ac. 751 (P.I. 157,062) from Lanchow, China, is a fairly close match and it in turn is almost indistinguishable from a line (Ac. 910) from Costa Rica.
I see only one pedicel at the nodes in von Jacquin’s plate, above. Maybe Smith and Heiser were looking at a different one. In any case, I quite like the fact that von Jacquin, who worked to promote Linnean binomials, gets the last laugh because he got the first name. Did the plants he described come from China? He must have thought so.
Wikipedia’s view is that von Jacquin "believed they originated in China due to their prevalence in Chinese cuisine after their introduction by European explorers,” and it cites a chapter by Paul Bosland in support. Chastened by the whole spinach thing, I checked.
Bosland says “the French taxonomist who named this species in 1776 got his seed from China”. Leave aside that von Jacquin was born in The Netherlands and working in Austria at the time; what is Bosland’s source? None other than Smith and Heiser (1957).
And they say absolutely nothing about the source of von Jacquin’s seeds.
The mystery, then, abides. Maybe someone with access to the archives at Schönbrunn Palace or the University of Vienna botanical gardens could take a quick poke around and see if there is any indication of the geographical origin of the plants that von Jacquin named Capsicum chinense.
Eshbaugh, W.H. 1993. History and exploitation of a serendipitous new crop discovery. p. 132–139. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), New crops. Wiley, New York. ↩
Untrue, as they were almost certainly introduced by crew members on ships, probably Chinese, and certainly not “explorers”. ↩
- Prof. Gayle J. Fritz gets 2020 Mary W. Klinger Book Award for “Feeding Cahokia.” Beyond maize and priests.
- The ups and downs of grape varieties. Airén relinquishes the top spot! So much data: who will calculate diversity stats?
- Nice, long podcast on the beginning of farming in the Fertile Crescent. More coming up.
- “Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table” is the sort of cookbook we all need.
- What is it about floating gardens? Quite a lot, really. But they are not easily transplanted, as it were.
- The development of the international center model for agricultural research: A prehistory of the CGIAR. The model didn’t start with those canonical US foundations, and owes more than a little to colonialism. Further integration is needed.
- Document or Lose It—On the Importance of Information Management for Genetic Resources Conservation in Genebanks. Standardization, openness and interoperability. Easier said than done, but if you’re looking for further integration…
- AI-powered banana diseases and pest detection. But can it tell bananas from plantains? Nice to link it up with the above.
- Crop Wild Relatives as Germplasm Resource for Cultivar Improvement in Mint (Mentha L.). 450 clones representing 34 taxa maintained by USDA. The next 2 are USDA things too.
- Germplasm Development of Underutilized Temperate U.S. Tree Crops. Sure, introduce species from abroad, but if they have local wild relatives you have another route to adaptation. Take the hazelnut, for example…
- Subspecies Variation of Daucus carota Coastal (“Gummifer”) Morphotypes (Apiaceae) Using Genotyping-by-Sequencing. One morphology and niche, 5 genetic groups.
- Comparisons of sampling methods for assessing intra- and inter-accession genetic diversity in three rice species using genotyping by sequencing. Some differences in results among sampling methods, but not huge.
- Combining ability analysis on rhizomatousness via incomplete diallel crosses between perennial wild relative of rice and Asian cultivated rice. If you want perennial cultivated(ish) rice, you have to pick your parents carefully.
- Something old, something new: Evolution of Colombian weedy rice (Oryza spp.) through de novo de‐domestication, exotic gene flow, and hybridization. Weedy rice is just local domesticated rice gone bad, at least in Colombia. Gosh I hope that perennial rice doesn’t get de-domesticated.
- It’s not just poverty: unregulated global market and bad governance explain unceasing deforestation in Western Madagascar. Stop blaming subsistence slash-and-burn.
- Climate change enforces to look beyond the plant – the example of pollinators. Create nice conditions for pollinators on farms, it’ll be worth it.
- Paternal Origins and Migratory Episodes of Domestic Sheep. 4 parental lineages, one with primitive features and another with fat tails.
- Women and Fish-for-Sex: Transactional Sex, HIV/AIDS and Gender in African Fisheries. Teach a man to fish, FFS.
- Use of Untargeted Liquid Chromatography–Mass Spectrometry Metabolome To Discriminate Italian Monovarietal Red Wines, Produced in Their Different Terroirs. A little wine with your fish? Ah no, wait, these are all reds. But at least you can tell them apart now.