The attack of the native tomatoes

The use of "native" with regard to vegetables lends an air of authenticity to local produce.

Ah, summer in New England. At last, here are the fine days that are all the more cherished because they are fewer than in places where it's warm and sunny all the time.

This is the season for fried clams and Fourth of July fireworks. And it's the perfect time for day trips to places best reached by long drives (which we don't mind in the glorious weather) over secondary roads – past farm stands advertising "native" produce.

Come again? Do you mean "local" produce? What's this with "native"?

It was a usage I first really noticed one summer when my mother and one of my aunts (both natives of the Midwest) came to Boston for an extended visit about 10 years after I'd first arrived here. Heading back into the city after a long day touring, we'd be beguiled by hand-lettered signs for "native corn" or "native tomatoes."

I've remarked in this space before how fraught the terminology over "immigrants" versus "natives" can be. In the plant kingdom as well, there are some issues. But "native" may have less baggage in association with plants than with people.

The Oxford English Dictionary notes that native, as a noun, is often applied "disparagingly to local residents belonging to a place." It also notes that native is used "now esp" to refer to "non-Europeans in a country in which Europeans hold political power."

Native seems to have multiple shades of meaning in various former British colonies, according to the relationship between the white settlers and the people who were there first. In Australia, a native is a white person born in Australia – that is, neither an immigrant nor an aboriginal. When I was reporting for the Monitor from Canada, I glommed onto the term "natives" to describe Indians, Arctic peoples, and other indigenous populations.

In the United States, people are so mobile that they need native to describe themselves in relationship to the place where they were born, which is very likely not to be the place where they live now or even the place where they grew up. Hence my reference above to my mother and aunt as "natives" of the Midwest.

To explain native as an adjective, Merriam-Webster Online gives this as its definition 6a: "grown, produced, or originating in a particular place or in the vicinity." This is the New England "native tomatoes." Local is given as a synonym. Definition 6b is "living or growing naturally in a particular region." The synonym for this meaning is indigenous.

Whereas "native" with regard to people can be something of a put-down, "native" with regard to vegetables has an air of authenticity and genuineness. Compare "nonnative," or worse, "invasive species."

There's a distinction between native and indigenous – the "native tomatoes" may be grown locally without being a distinct local variety or a plant that naturally occurs in a given area.

Shopping for produce in the open-air market when I was a student at the University of Bonn, in Germany, I picked up the helpful adjective hiesig – "from hereabouts" – doing the work that New Englanders try to accomplish with their distinctive use of native. I noticed the vendors all listed the origin of their produce, and I sometimes made a game of seeing how many countries I could represent in a single bowl of salad: Dutch lettuce, African green beans, even Romanian tomatoes.

But this is a time when maintaining local food production is seen as an environmental issue and when people are beginning to pay attention to the energy cost of the food they eat. I remember once noticing some beautiful imported Dutch peppers on offer at my local supermarket in Boston's Back Bay; I reflected that at those prices they must have flown business class on KLM. So there's something to be said for "native produce" even if it isn't the same heirloom species that the Wampanoag shared with the Pilgrims. And even if the rest of the country would just call it "local."

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