The Garden Gate: You’ll go bananas for these fruit factoids

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

Bananas as a food have a past history that is older than recorded history.

They were originally thought to have come from the tropical regions of southern Asia. In 327 B.C. the armies of Alexander the Great found this fruit growing in the valley of the Indus River.

It was about that time people learned they could carry dried roots to distant places where they would grow. The great migrations from southern Asia carried bananas to the islands of the Pacific.

The Arabs brought this fruit from India, and it is believed the bananas grown in the Middle East and Egypt came from this source. Bananas were found in these regions before the Mohammedan Conquest of 650 A.D.

Indian Ocean trade established bananas along the eastern coast of Africa at some time during the beginning of the Christian era.

Arabs carried this fruit from tribe to tribe and used it as a medium for barter for ivory and slaves.

Commerce like this carried the fruit to the Canary Islands, and thus the banana was well on its way to becoming the worldwide fruit that it is today.

Bananas were not known in America for a long time.

Ancient Indian tribes of the Western hemisphere had no word for them, nor did they have pictures of them in their historical records.

The credit for bringing bananas to the New World belongs to a Spanish priest, Thomas de Berlanga, who came as a missionary to San Domingo in 1516 carrying some banana roots from the Canary Islands.

Later, he became the Bishop of Panama, and introduced bananas there.

Have you ever seen bananas growing on their trees? And if you have, were you surprised to find that they grow upside down?

Banana trees are a spectacular sight when they are in bloom. The enormous flowers with their thick petals, which have the consistency of banana peels, are a deep reddish-purple color, almost black.

It wasn’t so long ago that fresh fruits were not available far from their growing sites and unheard of in some parts of this country. What Midwestern family ate bananas, even at the beginning of the 20th century?

That was the era when an orange was a special, expensive Christmas treat.

We now take for granted the prodigious display of fruits, vegetables and flowers from everywhere that is offered in every supermarket.

Oranges, the expensive holiday fruit treats of the early 20th century, are now so commonplace as to be taken totally for granted.

Oranges are indigenous to India and China.

They reached Europe, and in time America, by way of Persia. Oranges were listed in 1178 in herbals and medical books as remedies for many things.

Some of the listings indicate that even though the physicians knew nothing about vitamins, they were on the right track when it came to fruits.

Lemons came originally from western China. Recipes for lemonade appear in many writings before the 17th century.

Apples grow wild in most European countries and in America, all descended from the wild crabapple. Grafting has made possible many new varieties.

Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist and prolific writer, (23-79 A.D.) mentions 22. There are more than 2,000 kinds of them, but apples as we think of them are universal, and cider is a beverage older than wine.

It is thought that the golden apples of ancient writings were really apricots.

In Persia, apricots were called sun eggs, and they found their way to ancient Rome by way of America, reaching England very early in the 16th century.

Like bananas, pears were brought to America by Spanish missionaries more than 400 years ago.

Another fruit we think of as being tropical is the avocado, which was mentioned in 1519 in the first Spanish book about America.

They were first referred to as alligator pears in Florida in 1900.

Avocados are now so prolific and common in California that people complain about the mess they make falling from the trees. How would it seem to rake up avocados instead of fallen leaves in the autumn?

In the 12th century, crusaders arriving in the Holy Land learned to their amazement that apples, supposedly the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden, were not known in that area.

Obviously the translators of the Bible were mistaken; some other fruit was intended, and the crusaders set out to find what it was.

Many researchers today believe that it was the apricot, but the crusaders of the 12th century thought it was the big, yellow citrus fruit that they called the pomodla.

This tropical fruit would grow in England but it flourished in the islands of the Caribbean. A sea captain named Thomas Shadduck exported the yellow globes in about 1650 from Barbados, and they became known as Shaddocks.

By the mid-1770s they were prolific in the West Indies and because of the  way they grew in clusters like grapes, they were soon called grapefruits. A British botanist in 1830 gave them the Latin name citrus paradise, as a lasting memorial to the crusaders’ theory of the forbidden fruit.

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.