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DAILY SCIENCE

Tracing the history of crops through still lifes
Artworks in museums and private collections could double as a database of fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds. And you can help.
July 22, 2020

Some lazy day this month, you might have bitten into a juicy slice of watermelon and wondered when this fruit became a summertime staple. In fact, humans have enjoyed watermelons for thousands of years. People from many different cultures — including ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, and medieval Europe—ate them, and bred them to be increasingly tasty. 

How do we know? Partly from their artworks, which depict many varieties: sweet, pinkish types close to the one we’re familiar with today, and a white-fleshed relative called the citron. 

In a recent paper in Trends in Plant Science, two researchers—cultural historian David Vergauwen and plant biologist Ive De Smet—argue that art should play a bigger role in our exploration of plant history. Museums and private collections are full of still lifes, sculptures, landscapes and market scenes; looked at just a little differently, these could double as a database of “almost any fruit, vegetable, legume, grain, nut and seed that was ever consumed,” the authors write. Examining them closely could help us untangle when and where particular varieties were bred, how they were traded, and what role they played in society.

Currently, plant historians rely on a number of sources to piece together what the authors call “the history of our current crops.” They use archeological specimens, records from old ledgers and recipe books, and genetic analyses of today’s specimens. But preserved old food can be hard to find—and generally looks quite different than it used to—and written accounts tend to privilege other aspects of a plant, like taste. Art fills a gap because it allows us to observe “features of color, shape, size—these kind of things,” De Smet told Science Friday. (Also, “it’s fun,” he said.) He’s speaking from experience: in the past, the authors have used art to better understand wheat evolution and the molecular sources of carrot colors, and to understand

Not all artists are realists, and as the authors point out, some plant paintings should be pruned from consideration, lest they leave aspiring botanists confused and misled. Take the subjects of Pablo Picasso’s Pitcher and Bowl of Fruit, which look like Pokeballs, or the berries from Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, so large they must be carried overhead. Artistically and emotionally, these are powerful portrayals. But scientifically, they’re bad apples. 

There are other hurdles, too. Museums and other collections rarely categorize their holdings in terms of what fruits, grains or vegetables they contain—in other words, the database isn’t labeled. The authors are currently putting together an open-access collection of crop art, and invite the general public to contribute to it by sending relevant examples to [email protected]. They ask that you include all the information available about the artwork, like the artist and the date it was made.

For many, in-person museum visits aren’t in the cards right now. But next time you find yourself kicked back with a slice of watermelon and nothing to do, consider clicking around one of the many digital collections now open for perusal, and seeing what you can harvest there. (That is, if your fingers aren’t too sticky.) 

Source: Vergauwen, David and Ive De Smet. “Genomes on canvas: Artist’s perspective on evolution of plant-based foods.” Trends in Plant Science, 2020.
Image: Emilie Preyer/Wikimedia Commons

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