Bananas Are Berries?
By Greta Lorge
Oddballs of the produce stand, tomatoes and avocados are fruits, as most people know. Yet more often than not they're found alongside vegetables in savory culinary preparations. Working on this issue of the magazine got me wondering what it is, exactly, that makes a fruit a fruit. It turns out that the plant world is full of strange cases of counterintuitive classification.
Botanists define a fruit as the portion of a flowering plant that develops from the ovary. It contains the seeds, protecting them and facilitating dispersal. (The definition of a vegetable is a little fuzzier: any edible part of a plant that isn't a fruit.) Subcategories within the fruit family—citrus, berry, stonefruit or drupe (peaches, apricots), and pome (apples, pears)—are determined by which parts of the flower/ovary give rise to the skin, flesh and seeds.
Strawberries and raspberries aren't really berries in the botanical sense. They are derived from a single flower with more than one ovary, making them an aggregate fruit. True berries are simple fruits stemming from one flower with one ovary and typically have several seeds. Tomatoes fall into this group, as do pomegranates, kiwis and—believe it or not—bananas. (Their seeds are so tiny it's easy to forget they're there.)
One might think that owing to their superficial similarities to stonefruits, avocados might be classified as drupes. But no, they're actually considered a berry, too—with one, giant seed.
So, bananas are berries and raspberries aren't. Who knew?
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It is clear that a scientist can track which part of a plant becomes the skin, or if the seed originates form a flower ovary, yet this has very little to do with the agriculture (what is needed to grow it), the dietary factors (What to eat to stay healthy) or the culinary applications (With what we eat and how we prepare it). It is easy for an educated botanist to write to declare an exact definition of a fruit, and this is clearly helpful in his/her craft, but not practical for common rhetoric.
My guess is that the words for fruit and vegetable existed long before the study of botany. So what gives this discipline the right to lay claim to the definition of a word that so broadly affects society as a whole. I claim it would make much more sense, if we want to contract an overly educated professional to make a universal definition of what a fruit is, that we turn to a dietitian. We all know that we have to eat fruits and vegetables to lead a healthy diet. So knowing which plant parts fall into which dietary benefits is much more useful than the definition of a botanist that is most concerned about making sure that each subject fits nicely into a tree diagram so that it can be unambiguously classified.
Till I randomly stumble across this definition, because I am not curious enough to plunder the enormity of Google prioritized digital misinformation, I will stick to my personal definition. A fruit is what my eyes, taste buds and instincts tell me it is and root beer will never be a vegetable drink.
Posted by Dr. Jason M Boyle on Feb 25, 2014 6:53 PM
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