Farm Your Yard - Is it a Fruit or a Vegetable?

Jan 12, 2016

Happy New Year! 2016 is going to be a great gardening year, I can feel it in my bones. Over the holiday season, I, like most folks, spent lots of time with family. It was a great time to get together, joke, eat things we shouldn’t and watch plenty of Netflix. And, being the resident plant nerd of both mine and my husband’s family, I got asked a few questions about basic botany.

There are some clear differences between a fruit and a vegetable. Think you know? Carrie Hargrove from the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture has the details on this installment of Farm Your Yard.
Credit Carrie Hargrove / CCUA

Some questions were nebulous, like this one from my grandmother: Why does my house plant look like this? That’s a good question, I didn’t really know the answer.

Others were more concrete, ones that I could answer, like this one: What is the difference between a fruit and a vegetable? When I was explaining the answer to my husband’s cousin, the look on her face made me realize that while I take this information for granted, it might not be widely known. Yesterday, I tested that theory on my parents. I asked them whether a pepper is a fruit or a vegetable. After some conferring they decided that it was a vegetable but the fact that I was asking them in the first place made them suspicious that it was a fruit. That was good inferring on their part, because a pepper, along with eggplants, cucumbers, and yes, even okra are all actually fruits. They don’t taste like fruits, do they?

To be clear, I am only concerned with botanical classification of fruits and vegetables. Meaning, there is a difference between what is a fruit on a plant and what a chef decides is a fruit. Legally even, a tomato is classified as a vegetable (even though I am here to say it is actually a fruit). In 1893, SCOTUS ruled that a tomato was a vegetable. Which is weird to me, because, like, didn’t they have more important things to rule on? I guess it had something to do with taxes, I don’t know, I’m a gardener.

Anyway, I have three very special plants I want to talk about today and hopefully clarify any confusion about fruits and vegetables.

Let’s start simple: eggplants. Okay, if you have been listening closely, you already know this one, because I already said it: Eggplants are fruits. When I took my first botany class in college, and learned what part of a plant the fruit was, the eggplant is what really got me. I mean, there is nothing farther away from an apple than the taste of an eggplant. How could this be a fruit?! So it all starts with the birds and the bees, specifically bumble bees (specifically bumble bees for reasons we won’t go into today, but are really cool in and of themselves- you should look up the importance of bumble bees on plants like eggplants and their relatives, all I will say for now is that nature is amazing!) Anyway, imagine that you have an eggplant plant growing in your backyard garden. And its dark green and healthy, and the plant is happy, and the day length is just right so it starts to flower. It’s a lovely sight. When the flowers are mature, they are visited by bumble bees, who inadvertently transfer pollen from one plant to another, thereby pollinating the flowers. A pollinated flower will then turn into a fruit. All fruits have seeds inside them (with the exception of some triploid plants that have been bred purposefully by humans- think seedless watermelons). These seeds will sprout the next generation, thereby starting the cycle all over. So botanically speaking, all fruits come from pollinated flowers, and have seeds in them for the next generation.

A vegetable, on the other hand is a simpler concept. A vegetable is any non-fruiting part of a plant. Roots, leaves and stems are vegetables. Imagine a red onion, obviously this onion is a vegetable. Sure, an onion is a vegetable, everyone agrees to this, but lets take this one step further. What part of the plant is an onion? If I had to wager, I would guess that most people would assume that an onion is a root, given the fact that it grows underground. But once again, nature deceives. The layers of an onion are actually specialized leaves. That is no joke. When you go home, pull an onion out of your pantry. If you feel like it, cut it in half going from the roots to the pointy top. When you look at the cross section, you will see a bunch of onion layers, these are the specialized leaves, and then all the way at the bottom near the roots a barely noticeable and stubby stem, from which all of the onion layers- the leaves- are connected. Cool, huh?

And lastly, my favorite: the fig. A fig is a fruit, right? Well…yeah. Ok, you say, well it can’t be a vegetable, right, because it is neither root, nor stem, nor leaf. Well, that is true. So what is it? A fig is tricky, it is actually a whole bunch of flowers protected on the outside by a fleshy stem. In botany, this type of flower arrangement is called an inflorescence. Each fig had a tiny opening through which a very specific wasp can enter to pollinate the flowers inside. So we you much on a fig you are actually eating a whole bunch of tiny, tiny fruits, encase by a specialized stem. So a fig isn’t one, it is many fruits. That slight crunch or grainy feeling when you eat a dried fig? Those are the tiny seeds of the all the fruits, but also the tiny wasps that pollinated the flowers inside. But don’t be alarmed! That’s extra protein!

If there is one thing I have learned from my years as a gardener, it is that you really can’t judge a book, or a fruit, by it’s cover. As we spend these short grey days of winter waiting for the next opportunity to get our hands dirty in the garden, pay attention to what you eat. Think about the where your cucumber came from, not only botanically speaking, but geographically as well. Be thankful for the wonderful opportunity we have to eat such a plethora of fruits and vegetables at this time of year. Gratitude is what this season is all about.

Farm your Yard is hosted by the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture's Farm Manager Carrie Hargrove. Information  about CCUA is online and on Facebook.

Farm Your Yard is an occasional segment heard on KBIA's Thinking Out Loud, which broadcasts Tuesday evenings at 6:30 on 91.3FM.