Plant Cultivation

Of the more than 350,000 plant species, people use at least 10,000 species for food. Incredibly, fewer than 20 plant species provide more than 90 percent of our food supply. The cultivation of plants for food probably began about 11,000 years ago in the Middle East. Wheat, barley, lentils, and peas were the first domesticated food crops. Growing plants and raising animals for human use is called agriculture (AG-ri-KUHL-chuhr). People propagated, or reproduced, individual plants that had valuable characteristics, such as plants that produced the largest or tastiest fruits.

In the 11,000 years that humans have been cultivating plants, we have changed many of the plants so much that they could not grow and survive without us. For example, the wild wheat stalk, as shown in Figure 27-1, breaks easily in the wind, an adaptation that increases the dispersal of its seeds. But early farmers used seeds from plants with stalks that did not break easily for replanting. When these plants were grown, the seeds could be harvested before they fell from the plant. This form of selec-tion—with people acting as selecting agents—has resulted in high-quality food plants.

You have probably eaten Thompson Seedless grapes, Mcintosh apples, or Valencia oranges. They are just three examples of several hundred thousand different cultivars. The word cultivar is a contraction of the two terms cultivated and variety. Cultivars (KUHL-ti-VAHRZ) are selected by people, and they have at least one distinguishing characteristic that sets them apart from other members of their species. The famous Japanese flowering cherry trees in Washington, D.C., Yoshino cherries, are another example of a cultivar.


• Summarize the history of plant cultivation.

• Identify the categories of food crops.

• Explain how humans have increased food production in the world.

• Describe non-food uses of plants.

vocabulary botany agriculture cultivar cereal root crop legume fruit vegetable nut spice herb quinine fertilizer pesticide aspirin gasohol figure 27-1

Wheat is one of the world's most important food crops. It is used to make breads, crackers, macaroni, and spaghetti.

Making a Plant-Based Menu

Materials paper, pencil


1. Prepare a written lunch menu that consists only of plant-derived foods. Be careful to design a fully nutritional meal. Then, write a description of a lunch setting that is also completely derived from plants, including utensils and furniture.

2. Share your menu and lunchsetting description with your classmates.

Analysis Was it difficult or easy to devise a lunch that includes only plant-based items? Write down any interesting or unusual plant choices or purposes for them that you and your classmates included.

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