Archive for Thursday, May 10, 2007

Readers pose perplexing produce question: Vegetable or fruit?

May 10, 2007


Editor's note: Longtime Garden Calendar columnist Bruce Chladny recently accepted the position of director at the Wyandotte County Extension Office. Stan Ring, with the Douglas County office, wrote for Garden Calendar during Chladny's fall 2006 sabbatical and will resume writing the column.

Is it a fruit, or is it a vegetable? This is not an uncommon question and comes up in conversation with children at the dinner table or with grocers in the produce department. Tomatoes are usually the source of the debate.

The botanical definition is this: A fruit is the matured ovary - the fruiting body - of a plant. After fertilization takes place and the embryo (plantlet) has begun to develop, the surrounding ovule becomes the fruit. This is the part of the plant that is capable of reproducing the plant. There are four types of fruit - simple, aggregate, multiple and accessory - which explain results like berries and pineapples.

A vegetable is considered to be edible roots (carrots), tubers (ginger, potato), stems (celery), leaves (lettuce), flower clusters (rose petals) and other softer plant parts (asparagus stems). Generally, they are parts of the plant that support the growth and development of the ovary.

In common usage, however, there is no exact distinction between a vegetable and a fruit. The classification is largely determined by custom, culture and usage. From the common, everyday "grocery store perspective," we tend to use the word fruit with respect to being eaten fresh as desserts (apples, peaches, cherries) - and not to items cooked or used in salads. Some items are called fruits because they are sweet and contain a simple sugar (fructose), others vegetables, because they are less sweet. The term vegetable may have evolved after an 1893 tax lawsuit over the importation of fruit into the United States. California even passed a law declaring tomatoes a vegetable.

Botanists generally don't use the word vegetable to mean a plant or even a plant part. The basic parts are roots, stems, leaves, flowers/fruit/seeds. In horticulture, people talk about growing "flowers and vegetables" but that doesn't really make sense. Tomatoes and peppers are flowering plants.

A grain is described as the dry fruit of a cereal grass, such as the "seedlike fruits of the buckwheat and other plants, and the plants bearing such fruits." So, grain (corn) is also a fruit.

The nut, in botany, is "a dry, one-seeded, usually oily fruit." True nuts include the acorn, chestnut and hazelnut (single-seeded fruits). The term "nut" commonly refers to any seed or fruit with a hard, brittle covering around an edible kernel, like the peanut, which is really a legume, like the pea. Mushrooms are not plants at all, but a fungus.

To finally answer the question, the tomato, cooked or uncooked, is a fruit, but is eaten as a vegetable, as are cucumbers, peppers, melons, squashes, avocados and pumpkin. The real answer to all this controversy: "Bon appetit!"

¢Answers to gardening and horticulture questions can be obtained through the new Douglas County Extension Master Gardener Hotline Web site: Simply send your question, including as much detail as possible. Or call 843-7058, which is staffed from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday from April to October.

- Stan Ring is the horticulture program assistant at K-State Research and Extension Douglas County. He can be reached at 843-7058 or


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