Once in a while researchers discover some tidbit about one of the foods we love. Today, we have two such tidbits. Since these foods are from plants they are fundamentally part of nature.
First, let’s talk about watermelon. As I write this it is 91℉ and a slice would be great. Instead, I will share that a team from Washington University in St. Louis discovered that the current origin story for watermelon is incorrect. For about 90 years, scientists believed that this originated from the South African citron melon. However, new genetic information proves that the sweet, red pulpy fruit is derived from wild forms in western and northeast Africa.
You may not be aware that current domesticated watermelon stock comes from a very small gene pool. Consequently, it is susceptible to disease. The wild relatives have some resistant genes which may be bred into future varietals.
While this is important for continuity, perhaps more interestingly, the team also discovered some Egyptian tomb paintings that suggested that the Egyptians were enjoying watermelon too. This represents another cultural link with our 4,000-year-old ancestors.
Watermelons aren’t the only food crops that are at risk due to our over-dependence on a few or single species. Peanuts are also at risk.
A team at the Wild Peanut Lab at the University of Georgia is focused on improving the resilience of our peanut crops. They started by locating some wild peanut species in South America, the likely origin of these legumes. These wild ones may not have eye-appeal and are difficult to harvest but they do have some strong resistant genes.
The research team will continue to work with these to establish hybrids with the desirable features of both current and wild species. Hopefully, using the benefits of wild species will ensure that we continue to have delicious peanut butter in our future.