Spring has sprung, and with it a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables in the Sunshine state. Below, you’ll find a mixture of fresh and local food items to incorporate into your meal planning.
Bell peppers, which are actually fruits, originated in Mexico, Central America, and South America. Today, most green bell peppers sold in the United States are grown in Florida. Red, which have more than twice the vitamin C of green peppers, and yellow variations are just ripened green peppers and tend to sweeten during the process. Seasonal availability in the state of Florida is November through May.
Native to North America, before the 1900s, the only way to enjoy blueberries was to find them in the wild. Native Americans used them for food, medicine, and dye for baskets and cloth. They would smoke the berries, also called star berries, to preserve them for winter and consumed a jerky made of dried berries and meat. Today, 95% of the world’s blueberries are grown in North America. Once picked, blueberries no longer ripen and if not stored in a cool dry place, can mold in 12 hours. Seasonal availability in the state is April and May.
The original wild cabbage was domesticated 2,500 years ago and is native to the Mediterranean coastline. There are many varieties ranging from dark green, some nearly red, some ridged, others smooth. They’re an excellent source of manganese, vitamin B6, and folate; a good source of thiamin, riboflavin, calcium, potassium, vitamin A, tryptophan, protein and magnesium. Today China, where the practice of pickling seems to have originated, is the largest producer of cabbage harvesting over 64 million tons a year.
Sweet, juicy, and succulent cantaloupes are in season April through June. It’s likely that they originated in the Middle East or India but have been growing along the Nile River Valley since ancient times. In the 1700s, they were cultivated in Cantaloupo, Italy where they received their name. A good source of vitamin C & A, cantaloupes are related to watermelons, honeydews, cucumbers, pumpkins, and squash.
Relatively new to North and South America, star fruits are believe to have originated from Sri Lanka or the islands of Indonesia (the Moluccas). When Spanish and Portuguese explorers arrived in Asia they adapted the Indian word karambal and renamed the fruit carambola. In 1887, they were introduced to Florida followed by the Caribbean islands, Central America, South America, and Hawaii in 1935. They’re in season from January through April. Kick back with this Chilean Pisco Star-Spangled Punch before they’re gone.
What’s up, Doc? Bugs Bunny had a reason to love these root vegetables. Over 3000 years ago in Asia, carrots were first used for medicinal purposes. Though they didn’t look like the orange carrots most of us recognize now, these were purple and yellow. Fast forward to 900BC and they’ll be grown for food for the first time in Afghanistan. In the 1300s, the yellow and purple carrots packed their luggage and made their first trip to Western Europe. There, European ladies would wear lacy carrot flowers in their hair in the 15th century. There’s ongoing debate as to whether the orange carrot was developed in Holland as a tribute to William of Orange during the Dutch fight for independence. Today they’re still the most popular variety in the US. Surprisingly, they’re only in season in Florida during the months of April & May. California is the largest producer.
Cauliflowers were originally grown in Asia but have been eaten in Europe since the 1500s. They’re similar in appearance to their relative the broccoli, except for their lack of color, a result of the leaves covering their heads shielding them from the sun like a trusty umbrella-ella-ella-ey-ey-ey. Nowadays, you’ll find them in green, the love child of a cauliflower and a broccoli, purple or even orange. Like carrots, California is the number one producer in the state… which is probably why it’s called the Salad Bowl of the World. They’re in season in Florida from January through May.
Used over 3000 years ago as medicines by Greeks and Romans, celery was first grown as a food crop in the 1600s. Florida, California and Michigan grow more celery than any other state. Surprisingly, they’re second only to lettuce in the US as a salad crop. They’re a good source of potassium and you’ll find them in season in Florida from December through May. Learn how you can replant the root end of celery.
Cucumbers, which are actually a fruit, are 96% water! Thought to be poisonous, they were originally grown in India around 1500BC, and consumed with their skins scraped off to let the poison out. Despite this fear, they spread throughout Asia and were also cultivated by the Egyptians where they assisted travelers crossing the deserts due to their water content. Alexander the Great brought them to Europe from Asia, Columbus brought them to the Americas, by 1494 they were being grown in Haiti, then North America by the mid-16th century . There are five broad groups of cucumber varieties: Middle Eastern & Asian, which are relatively small, European, typically long and slender, American, which tend to be short/thick and coated with wax to slow moisture loss, and the so-called Armenian cucumbers which are really an elongated African melon.
The eggplant is believed to have originated in India where it’s considered to be the King of Vegetables. It was taken to Africa by the Arabs and Persians during the Middle Ages, eventually finding its way to Italy in the 14th century where it was called a mala insana or “crazy apple”. Ancient Persian philosophers thought that eating them caused all sorts of ailments from pimples to epilepsy. They’re in season from November through June.
Available year-round, the origins of guava unknown but believed to be from an area extending from southern Mexico into or through Central America. They’re a good source of Vitamin A, Folate, Potassium, Copper and Manganese, and a very good source of Dietary Fiber and Vitamin C. “The guava has become a necessity to South Florida; is to South Florida what the peach is to Georgia”.
On average, Americans eat 30lbs of lettuce every year. Those darker in color contain more vitamins and minerals than the lighter ones (i.e. iceberg). In Florida they’re in season from December through April, but how did they get here? Step into my time machine and let’s head back to ancient Egypt over 6000 years ago, we find the first documentation of their cultivation. Could they have been around prior to this? Yep! Word on the streets is that Hippocrates would praise the lettuce head, Caesar Augustus’ heart went so pitter-patter of them that he had a statue made in its likeness. In the 1600s, it’s said that John Winthrop Jr. brought them over to the US where now they’re mostly grown in California.
Mushrooms are not really plants but instead fungi, belonging to the same class as molds and yeast. The cultivation is relatively recent, beginning in 17th century France and booming during the Napoleonic era. They’re known to contain more protein and vitamin B12 than any other produce. The common white button variety accounts for nearly 70% of all mushrooms grown worldwide. While they seem to sprout overnight, it actually takes days or weeks to produce one mushroom. Availability is year round.
Oranges, the primary source of vitamin C for most of us! Believe it or not, oranges are technically berries since the official definition of a berry is “a fleshy fruit produced from a single ovary.” They originated in what is now Malaysia and made their way throughout Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Greece and Rome. The Greeks prized them as foods from the Gods and called them “golden apples”. During Queen Victoria’s reign, oranges were handed out as gifts. In the 1560s, Spaniards planted orange trees in Florida, which now produces over 70% of the country’s oranges (9 out of 10 of which are used to make juice).
Papaya, another one classified as a berry. They’re thought to have started growing in Mexico and Central America. Spanish explorers transported the seeds to the Phillipines, Malacca, India, as well as other South and Central American countries. The most popular variety is the the “solo” or “Hawaiian” papaya and is shaped like a pear. The papaya’s seeds are edible and both its leaves and seeds have been used for medical purposes. Florida and Hawaii are the only states which grow papaya, yet the bulk of those grown in the US are from Mexico. You’ll find them in season here from February through June. Grab some while they’re still available and make a papaya milkshake.
Peanuts, which are in actuality legumes, probably originated in Peru or Brazil in South America. The people of South America made pottery in the shape of peanuts or decorated jars with peanuts as far back as 3,500 years ago. From South America, they were picked up by Spanish and Portuguese traders, brought to Africa and raised locally, and carried on slave ships to what’s now the U.S. Popularity grew when PT Barnum’s circus traveled across the country with vendors shouting “hot roasted peanuts!” to the crowds. In season from January through November.
Indigenous to North and South America, there are more than 200 species and potatoes. Some were cultivated over 8,000 years ago. They were hardy, easy to grow, inexpensive. Irish peasants survived on 5-10 potatoes a day during the Great Famine of 1845. They’re in season locally from February through June.
Records show that radishes were being eaten before the pyramids were built. These root vegetables whose leaves can also be eaten, originated in China and gradually spread west. Ancient Greeks offered gold radish replicas to their God Apollo. You’ll find radishes grown in almost every state, but the vast majority of those found in grocery stores are grown in Florida and California. They’re in season in Florida from November through May. Pickle some today!
Archaeologists have found peas in ancient Egyptian tombs. Sugar snap peas, which are a cross between English and snow peas, were probably developed in the late 17th century, but they did not become commonly available until the 1970s. They’re in season from November through May.
Growing up, I fell in love with spinach all thanks to Popeye. Apparently others must love this leafy green just as much since March 26 is designated National Spinach Day. While fresh spinach is available year round from California and Texas, they’re in season in Florida during the months of March & April. So, where did spinach originate? It’s believed to have emerged in the middle east, likely present day Iran. Arab traders carried it to China, India and it became popular in North Africa. In the 13th century it reached Europe and was mentioned in the first English cookbook compiled in 1390. It is full of vitamins A, C, folate, B6, E, and K. It is also a great source of magnesium and potassium.
The word “squash”, one of the oldest known crops, comes from the Narragansett Indian word askutasquash, meaning “a green thing eaten raw.” Every part of the squash plant, from leaves to shoots, can be eaten. They’re a good source of minerals, carotenes and vitamin A, with moderate quantities of vitamins B and C. They’re available from October through May.
There are over 600 varieties of strawberries! In 1714, a French naval officer found a flowering strawberry plant in Chile. It was sent to France where the plant crossed with a North American strawberry plant resulting in a much larger berry than those grown elsewhere. Today’s berries are their descendants. During Napoleon Bonaparte’s rule, Madame Tallien bathed in the juice of fresh strawberries – she used 22 pounds per bath. Makes me wonder how often she bathed, but that’s a rabbit hole. Today, California provides 80% of strawberries grown in the US. You’ll find them in season in Florida from December through April.
Corn was domesticated over 9,000 years ago in Mesoamerica and is now the third largest human food crop outside of wheat and rice! There are five varieties, all which were known to the Native Americans prior to the arrival of European settlers: popcorn, flint corn, dent corn, flour corn, sweet corn, It’s this variety that’s most oven used to make popcorn and cornmeal. You’ll find them in season from October through June.
Tangerines originated in the North African city of Tangier in Morocco in the 19th century. The first batch of tangerines was brought to America when the Italian consul in New Orleans decided to plant it on the grounds surrounding the consulate. From New Orleans, the tangerine was taken to Florida and it became a commercial crop like other citrus fruits. They’re high in vitamin C, have many of the same health benefits as oranges and typical availability in Florida is September through May.
Tomatoes, which are a fruit formed out of a flower, are South American natives. The reason they were labeled as vegetables rather than fruits has to do with import taxes. Tomatoes were cultivated by the Incas and Aztecs since 700 AD. Most people in Europe believed them to be poisonous, as such popularity was slow to develop. Following European acceptance, its popularity grew in the US. Thomas Jefferson grew tomatoes in his garden in 1782, by 1812 they were frequently used in New Orleans cooking. Grow your own tomatoes!
Watermelons are 92%, 8% sugar and 100% delicious. They’re believed to have originated from Africa, and likely to have been cultivated over 4000 years ago. Watermelon seeds were recovered from the tomb of King Tutakhamen. Watermelon popularity in the US is likely due, in large part, to African slaves who would plant watermelons in the cotton fields to enjoy in July and August while they worked. August 3rd is celebrated as National Watermelon day. Enjoy a refreshing watermelon limeade.
- Dill, Alicia E. Bell Pepper Fact Sheet (n.d.): n. pag. Web. Mar.-Apr. 2015.
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- Dill, Alicia E. Cantaloupe Fact Sheet (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.
- Dill, Alicia E. Star Fruit Fact Sheet (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.
- Dill, Alicia E. Carrot Fact Sheet (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.
- Hamson, Alvin R. Cauliflower Fact Sheet. n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.
- Dill, Alicia E. Celery Fact Sheet (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.
- Cucumber Fact Sheet. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.
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- Domonoske, Camila. “A Legume With Many Names: The Story Of ‘Goober'” NPR. NPR, 24 Apr. 2014. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.
- “How Did the Squash Get Its Name?” Everyday Mysteries: Fun Science Facts from the Library of Congress. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.
- “Fun Facts About Tangerines.” Hale Groves. N.p., 13 July 2014. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.