Schrödinger's Kitten

Irreverent Science for Everyone

Tuesday 11 August 2009

The Fruit Is A Lie

  • food
  • macro

We all know, I think, that a tomato is a fruit not a vegetable. It’s the sort of amazing fact printed on cereal boxes to amuse and entertain children with very low standards. The distinction is, so I fuzzily recall, that fruit are part of reproduction, whereas a vegetable is any other botanical bit we eat. Thus, fruit have seeds inside, veg don’t — veg can be leaves (cabbage), roots (parsnip) or buds (sprouts).

The plot, however, thickened when I was cutting up strawberries — one of the few consolations for an English ‘summer’ — and idly wondered what the hell they were, since the seeds were on the outside. Being the sort of know-it-all who watches QI1 I was also aware that many berries were not, technically and botanically speaking, berries. A blackberry, for example, is actually an aggregate fruit composed of drupelets (little flesh bits with just one seed inside). Impress your friends with that. So I was prepared for a shock, but not the magnitude of what I actually found.

Hardly Anything Is A Damn Fruit

Strawberries, you will be glad to know, are a ‘false fruit’. Which seems reasonable enough. But at this point a small doubt started to grow in my mind... what, actually, then, was a real fruit? Oranges? No, they’re a modified berry. Bananas? Leathery berry. Plums? Drupe — fleshy bit with one stone inside. Peaches, nectarines and mangos, similar. Pineapple? Forget it — multiple fruit, incorporating the support that the original flowers all grow on, making it a pseudo-multiple-carp. Although interestingly and cutely, they are pollinated by hummingbirds and bats.2 (Not usually simultaneously.)

Apples, I thought. Good old apples.3 No. They are pomes. What is a pome? Well, It’s a real fruit in the middle and a false fruit round the outside. It’s the real thing dressed up as a fake to avoid detection by the cops. So is the pear.

No. None of them are bloody fruit. I feel so betrayed.

What Is This Thing Called Fruit?

This is a diagram of dirty dirty fruit reproductive action. Note that I am not fully comfortably with them displaying their reproductive organs like that, and spewing their pollen into the air freely, but I can’t seem to stop them.

Dirty dirty fruit reproductive action

A fruit — a ‘true fruit’ — is one where all tissues are derived from the plant ovary and this alone. This includes peas. Whereas strawberries, for example, also include some of the flesh from the peg that holds the ovary, disqualifying them from fruit status. The apple gets its carpels involved as well as the ovary, leading to a kinky pome. ‘True berries’ are also ‘true fruits’, but not the other way round. Grapes, currants (red and black), elder- and gooseberries are all proper upstanding berries which will not deceive you or smuggle themselves into your house in pies before stealing your silver while you sleep.

In fact, the only ‘true’ fruit I can find that’s not a berry but is, kind of, a fruit (more so than peas anyway) is the tomato again. Maybe those cereal box authors did know what they were on about after all.

So Why Call It Fruit If It’s Not?

I can only conclude it makes the biologists feel special, because they know something we don’t know. Something physicists would never do. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to look for the most charmed particle I can find. I intend to see if I can cause it to decay into strangeness.

1. A popular English Televisual Feast whereby the Masses are Disabused of their Ignorance by means of Stephen Fry and some Elves.

2. Any other bat fans who think this idea is unbearably cute can sate their needs with this gallery of hot bat/flower interspecies pollination pictures by Dr. Nathan Muchala. One of them has a tongue so long it stores it in its rib cage when not in use!

3. Back in the Middle Ages in England ‘apple’ used to be a catch-all word for any fruit. Hence when oranges first appeared, they were sometimes known as ‘golden apples’ (and are still called Chinese apples in Dutch and German). Why not ‘orange apples’? Um, because the colour orange (first recorded use 1542) derives from the fruit, rather than the other way round. What did the English call orange things before that? Geoluhread (yellow-red), naturally. Not that there was much use for the word since at that point most things were brown and muddy most of the time, as far as I can tell. However, back then, before centuries of patriotic Dutch inbreeding, even recently-washed carrots were purple or yellow. True.

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