Getting to the root of the vegetable

How well do you know your veggies? Read the descriptions below and see if you can identify the edible plant by its history or the origin of its name (its etymology). (And no dessert until you've finished your vegetable quiz....)

1. This small, crisp root of the mustard family is poetically called "the rose of winter" in French. Its name comes from the Greek raphanes ("easily reared"). In most locations it is ready to pull and eat three weeks after it's planted. Ancient Greeks valued it so much that they made small replicas of it in gold. Romans were less reverent: They picked the spicy roots only so they could hurl them at politicians. This vegetable was also grown in Egypt and was part of the staple diet given to workers on the Great Pyramid, along with onions and garlic.

2. According to word authorities, Napoleon was so enamored with this deeply crinkled green vegetable of the goosefoot family that he decorated his colonels' epaulets with what looked like its edible leaves. The vegetable's name is from the Spanish espinaca.

3. This vegetable has been cultivated for at least 2,500 years. Its succulent leaves have inspired an American slang word for cash, probably because it's so commonly green. Aristotle praised it, and old sea journals show that Columbus took its seeds with him to the Bahamas.

4. Not so many decades ago, this plant was almost unknown in American gardens. Roman farmers and poets are said to call this stalky plant with its tightly packed blue-green flower buds "the five green fingers of Jupiter." The name actually comes from the Latin bracchium ("a strong arm" or "strong branch").

5. More than a century ago, a French horticulturist cultivated this plant from Queen Anne's lace, a common wildflower. When this long, tapered vegetable of the parsley family was first brought to England, however, women at first passed up its colorful and edible root. Instead, they clipped its fernlike leaves to wear as hair decorations.

6. Native Americans were growing these, along with corn, long before the Pilgrims arrived. In a certain fairy tale, it is likely that the author was thinking about the Romano variety, which is a vigorous grower. This vine, like every vine growing in the Northern Hemisphere, will grow counterclockwise up a support. In the southern hemisphere, vines take a clockwise twist.

7. If you ask for a "head" of this, you're repeating yourself. The vegetable's name means "head." Its name derives from the Old French word caboca, "swollen head." It is one of the world's most ancient vegetables, having been cultivated for more than 4,000 years. But the earliest varieties were loose-leafed. Headed varieties turned up in the 13th century, became noticeably rounded in the 16th century, and then somewhat pointed 200 years later. Historians say that the plant's cultivated forms today may have stemmed from the original wild types found on the white cliffs of Dover. The vegetable still grows well in that area.

8. Kurnom is an Old Teutonic name for this cereal grain popular in the United States. Britons call it "maize," but it is comparatively little known in Europe. Columbus did his best to introduce it to his Spanish countrymen by bringing seeds back with him from Cuba. From Spain, it spread throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. To this day, it is the most valuable food plant native to the New World. It is used widely in more than 600 products, from succotash, to disposable diapers, to a gasoline additive.

9. This ancient and honorable vegetable has a pedigree that dates back to the very beginning of human history. The soldiers of the Greek and Roman armies were issued this member of the amaryllis family along with garlic to go with their meals on the march. During the Civil War, Gen. Ulysses Grant hesitated to move his army forward without it, historians say. The most popular modern bulbs are American, Spanish, and Bermuda varieties.

10. It takes its name from the Latin rha barbarum. The Romans called it this because the plant with its thick, tangy leafstalks was native to the river Rha (now called the Volga), which was considered a barbarian territory. The first fleshy stalks came to the cooler climes of North America from Siberia in 1770. The acid-flavored "pieplant" is almost always served in a pie, hence the name, but the taste is still barbaric to some.


(1) radish; (2) spinach; (3) lettuce; (4) broccoli; (5) carrot; (6) bean; (7) cabbage; (8) corn; (9) onion, (10) rhubarb.

SOURCES: 'The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins,' by Robert Hendrickson; The World Book Dictionary; Webster's Dictionary; The Random House Dictionary; 'The New York Times Book of Vegetable Gardening,' by Joan Lee Faust; The Random House Book of Vegetables; 'Your Kitchen Garden,' by George Seddon; 'The Kitchen Garden,' by Sylvia Thompson; 'Heirloom Vegetable Gardening,' by William W. Weaver; 'Step-by-Step to Organic Vegetable Growing,' by Samuel Ogden; 'The Harvest Gardener,' by Susan McClure; 'The Big Book of Gardening Secrets,' by Charles Smith.

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