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Botanical Field Trip Through Christmas Dinner

Fall cranberries, Alaska

Going for a hike at this time of year just isn’t the same for a botanist. The flowers are dead and all the leaves have fallen. Not much material for a field note out there. But here in my kitchen there are lots of interesting and colorful members of the vegetable kingdom because I’m preparing my holiday dinner. But I’m not talking turkeys; let’s leave the turkeys to the zoologists. Most of the traditional foods are actually plants. Although most of the everyday grains and vegetables we use are derived from Eurasian or African species, the Thanksgiving and Christmas table have mainly vegetables of New World origin. We’ll go on a field trip through my kitchen and take a botanical look at Christmas dinner.

Cranberries are easiest – at least for me. I get the canned stuff. Before they’re so roundly confined, cranberries grow on low bushes in bogs and are very closely related to huckleberries and blueberries. There are two species of cranberries, both native to the U.S. Vaccinium macrocarpon has large fruits, and is cultivated for commercial crops. Vaccinium oxycoccos has smaller berries, but it can be found closer to home – just over the border in northern Idaho. There we go: a nice setting of cranberry sauce with a perfect tubular shape.

Here I have wild rice. Zizania aquatic is also native to eastern North America, but it can be found growing in a few places in northwest Montana where Fish, Wildlife and Parks has introduced it to enhance waterfowl habitat.

Let’s move on to these gourds. There are pumpkins and winter squashes. The colors vary from orange to green, and the shapes are squat to elongate. Nonetheless, they are all the same species, Cucurbita pepo, a member of the gourd family native to Mexico. Although pumpkins are native far to the south, the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony probably learned about them from Wampanoag tribal leaders in 1621, and they are even raised commercially here in Montana. In fact this guy I’m turning into pie is from the Bitterroot Valley.

Potatoes are my favorite. Potatoes are modified stems of Solanum tuberosum in the nightshade or tomato family. They are superficially like these sweet potatoes, but sweet potatoes are the swollen roots of the vine Ipomoea batatas in the morning glory family. Sweet potatoes are completely unrelated to potatoes (sniff, sniff). They smell the same when I burn them, though. Maybe I should check the oven. The real killer is yams. In our stores, orange sweet potatoes are called yams, but they’re not. True yams are a tropical vegetable in the Dioscorea family, closely related to lilies. Around here, the white sweet potatoes are called sweet potatoes and the orange ones are called yams, but they’re both really sweet potatoes, although neither of them are potatoes. Got that straight?

So there it is, everything I need to put on Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, and these foods have been cultivated and eaten in North America for millennia. Considering all the leftovers I’ll have, they’ll be eaten for another millennia at least.

And there’s no need to be pedantic. Just go to the store and pick up some yams, even if they’re really potatoes. No, that’s not right…

'Field Notes' is produced by the Montana Natural History Center

Broadcast: "Fieldnotes," 12/20/16. You can hear the program on the radio Sundays at 12:55 p.m., Tuesdays at 4:54 p.m., and Fridays at 4:54 p.m., or listen via podcast.

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