Renewing My Faith in Fruit — and Botany

Reader (and botanist) Ford writes:

Folks get all off about fruits, thinking that we botanists are trying to mess with their minds. We’re really not. Almost everything that folks normally call a fruit is, in fact, a fruit (as are a lot of vegetables, not just tomatoes — think eggplants, cucumbers, squash, green beans). There may be some disagreement among botanists on the strict definition of a fruit — purists might say it can consist only of the ovary and nothing else — but my trusty Plant Identification Terminology [Harris & Harris, 1994] says a fruit is “a ripened ovary and any other structures which are attached and ripen with it”. There are “false fruits” including accessory fruits, like strawberries; aggregate fruits, like raspberries; and multiple fruits, like pineapples; but just about everything else is a particular subtype of “true fruit”. A pome is a fruit in which the receptacle tissue surrounding the ovary ripens along with it. A drupe is a fruit in which the ovary layer closest to the seed forms a stony pit, while the outer layers become fleshy. A berry, and all the various berry-like or berry-derived fruit types like bananas and oranges, is a fleshy fruit that has several or many seeds. The tomato is, in fact, a berry.

My point is, it’s safe to go back in the produce aisle. But don’t get too trusting; we botanists have plenty of other traps set up in your “root crops”. And your “seeds”. And your pretty flower bouquets.

Thanks Ford! You know, I remember an occasion a long time ago when a Scottish fellow had me convinced that botany was the only science that was actually named after a person. Sir Alfred Botany or something like that. All I remember is that I’d had a lot to drink that evening and the whole thing sounded plausible enough. Suffice to say that while my faith in fruit has now been restored, I still have a problem with Scotsmen.

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