America’s first fruits and vegetables
Among Other Things to Thank Columbus for…
By Ken Zurski
In Jill Lepore’s bold new 900-plus page tome titled “These Truths: A History of the United States,” the essayist and historian begins the incredible journey in the obvious year of 1492 and the discovery of a new land by a man named Christopher Columbus, an Italian-born Portuguese sailor, who was sent by the Spanish king and queen to sail across the Atlantic and spread Christianity, along with more financially rewarding reasons as well.
The name of this new land, Lepore points out was actually given by a German cartographer whose map of the world in four parts included a word, made up, to describe the fourth and newest part: America. But like most historians, Columbus gets credit for finding this new world, soon to be dubbed New Spain, a place where a place was not supposed to be.
Columbus found this new territory well inhabited by natives and resourceful to cultivating. Upon his return back to the homeland, he told the Spanish born Pope who in turn used only his divine powers to grant the land to Spain as if “he were the god of Genesis,” Lepore writes.
Not everyone agreed, but it didn’t matter. Columbus was already planning another trip to conquer and domesticate this New Spain. So in 1493 he led an armada of seventeen ships and 1200 men back to America. This time on board the ships were an abundance of livestock and seeds, enough to start a small farm. It would not be long before the cattle, pigs, sheep and goats multiplied. There was an abundant food supply on this fertile land and no natural predators. “They reproduced in numbers unfathomable in Europe,” reports Leprore. “Cattle population doubled every fifteen months.”
Even more productive, the pigs who were notorious foragers and reproducers quickly outnumbered the cattle. “Within a few years,” Lepore expounds, ” the eight pigs he [Columbus] brought with him had descendants numbering in the thousands.”
Columbus also brought with him seeds of “wheat, chickpeas, melons, onions, radishes, greens, grapevines, and sugar cane.” He also brought diseases, which the European people were mostly immune, but carried unseen. This would wipe out most of the native population who had never been exposed to and therefore had no defense against malaria, influenza, small pox , whopping cough and yellow fever, among others. They died by the “tens of millions,” and those left were usually rounded up and sold as slaves.
And while this conquer, pillage and plunder method by the Spaniards is fiercely debated, and is often roundly criticized, the legacy of Columbus and his men can also be found in many of the plants which dot the country’s landscape. For aboard the transport ships, hidden among the folds of “animal skins, blankets and clods of mud” came a seed, which Lepore points out were “the seeds of plants Europeans considered to be weeds.”
These wild plant seeds were inadvertently distributed in the soil and thanks to the constant moving of dirt by cattle, horses, and human digging and tilling, they spread across the ground like diseases did between the natives.
Bluegrass, daises, and ferns were among them. Thistles and nettles also stayed and thrived.
And one – the mighty dandelion – just never seems to go away.