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Is it a fruit or vegetable?

October 11, 2019
By JOYCE COMINGORE - Garden Club of Cape Coral ( , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

I'm certain most of us have had the debate about a tomato. Botanically, yes, it is a fruit -- just don't put it into a fruit salad. Further definition states, a fruit is a seed-bearing structure that develops from the ovary of a flowering plant whereas vegetables are all other plant parts such as roots, leaves and stems.

It even came before the Supreme Court in 1893 to declare tomatoes should be taxed like other vegetables. Justice Horace Gray summed it up in that day and age, "botanically, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine just as are cucumbers, squash, beans and peas, etc." This is when I found out there are 14 vegetables that are actually fruits.

Every kind of peppers fit the bill as a fruit and not a vegetable, peas aren't but their pods are because they contain the seeds - peas, that the plant uses to reproduce. Our jack-o-lanterns, pumpkins, are full of seeds when we carve them, and all other gourds are technically fruits, not vegetables; cucumbers are too, can you look at a dill pickle and call it a pickled fruit? Eggplant is not only fruit but a berry. String beans and okra fit the category. Would you believe olives are considered a stone fruit like peaches, mangoes and dates. Avocados are actually single-seeded berries. Zucchini is a fruit, chickpeas or garbanzo beans are classified like peas because they come from inside pods.

When I saw an article, "Is corn a fruit, a vegetable, or a grain?", that started all this inquiry. That's a complicated question, hence, this primer on corn biology. This time of year, we see bundled corn stalks with scarecrows and pumpkins leaning against them as featured decorations for the holiday.

Corn stalks grow several ears on a stalk. Ears are the female parts of the plant, the tassle on the top with pollen is the male part. To digress, my friends used to detassle corn in the summer to earn fall money for school clothes. This tassle produces the pollen. Before these ears look like what we eat, they're essentially a hard cylinder covered in hundreds of unfertilized ovules. Each ovule grows a single silk, which reaches up and out of the top of the husk where it hopes to catch a bit of pollen on its little sticky hairs. If it does, the silk grows a pollen tube, enabling the male genes to travel towards the ovule, fertilizing it. This only has to happen 400 to 600 more times to make a whole ear of corn.

How we differentiate between fruits and vegetables depends on which bits of plant we eat. If we eat the part derived from the ovaries or other reproductive tissue, we call it a fruit. Everything else we call a vegetable. Corn is a seed derived from the flower/ovary of the corn plant, so technically it is a fruit.

Specifically, corn is caryopsis, which is a type of fruit in which the pericarp (the fleshy bit) and the seed coat is tightly fused. The common name for caryopses is grains. Grains are a type of fruit -- we eat the reproductive parts, making corn and grain both a fruit.

Finally, we ask is corn a vegetable? Botanically and scientifically, no. Vegetable is essentially an arbitrary term. We think of vegetables as not sweet or not juicy produce. Fruit is something you can eat straight. Just pick it up, wash it and eat it. Corn we cook it, butter and salt it, then eat it. Now you can roast pumpkin seeds, blanch peas, but they are both fruits. Bell peppers can be eaten raw like the fruits they really are, yet we call them vegetables.

Gertrude Stein said, "A rose is a rose is a rose, by any other name it would smell as sweet." Whatever you want to call corn, and even though you can eat it, and technically that doesn't make it a vegetable, eat it and call it what you want to call it, it's sooo good.

If you want to plant a patch of corn, you can't plant just one stalk, you need to plant it in a block at least 3 rows wide, not one long row. Plant them in a sunny, wind protected space; remember, they don't transplant well. Crop rotation is essential here. Hopefully you have a patch enriched by planting nitrogen producing plants last year. Sow seeds no more than 1 to 2 inches deep. Plant 3 seeds together every 7 to 15 inches apart. Cut unwanted seedlings off at soil level, don't pull and disturb the soil. They need to be kept free of weeds for the first month, after that their shallow roots will spread about 1 foot from the stalk.

Corn needs about an inch of water a week, especially when stalks begin to tassel. Water stress during pollination will result in ears with lots of missing kernels. Soaker hoses or drip irrigation is best to keep from doing overhead watering and disturbing the tassel's pollen.

Sweet corn can be planted now in October. Fall and wintertime is the time to plant in South Florida, all the way up to February and March. South Florida is State Route 70 and below. Bush, pole and lima beans can be planted by seeds. Seeds for cucumbers, onions, radishes, summer squash and turnips can be planted now. Carrots, celery, mustards, potatoes and spinach you transplant with care and beets, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, eggplant, endive, escarole, kohlrabi, lettuces, peppers strawberries and tomatoes survive transplanting.

Week-ends from Oct. 11-27, visit the Scarecrow Fest at Lakes Park and vote for your favorite scarecrow.

Joyce Comingore is a Master Gardener, hibiscus enthusiast and member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.



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