By JOYCE COMINGORE
As the poem begins, "In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue," discovering the Bahamas; and it ends "The first American? No, not quite. But Columbus was brave, and he was bright." He thought he had found the eastern route to China. Amerigo Vespucci discovered a new country that map makers named America, in 1497. When realizing this after Columbus' mistake was known, it was too late to rename our country, Columbia. History had given us the name, Americas.
They inspired others to come this way, making, the Spanish explorer, Ponce de Leon, who sailed here in 1513, exploring Georgia and Florida, the discoverer of North America. He recognized and recorded it under Spanish auspices. I won't even go into China's claims to discovering America.
Horticulturists like to emphasize "native plants." The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, defines a "native" plant as a species occurring in Florida at the time of European contact, around 1500. So this is the line drawn to define them.
The Fort Myers/Lee County Garden Council is now presenting a most unusual free Standard Flower Show, called "La Florida, The First 500 Years." It started Friday and continues today, Saturday, March 2, at the Rutenberg Room in the Eco-Living Center, 6490 South Pointe Blvd., Fort Myers. A study of Florida's history, with time appropriate native plants featured in the floral designs, is being displayed. You can still catch the show today, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Starting with 1513 through 2012, there are 17 classes covering these years, with designs featuring plants of those eras. What a challenge for the designers, and they will challenge your ideas of Florida's history. There is also a horticulture display of members' plants, along with Educational Exhibits. Come and enjoy the art of flower designs in containers, not vases.
Columbus made three more trips back to the Western Hemisphere. The first trip he presented to his Spanish providers (after not finding the Asian spices he set out for,) tobacco, pineapple, turkey and the hammock, and more. Chili peppers were presented as the Indians pepper; they seasoned their foods with them. His voyage encouraged other European explorations and colonization. These adventures brought to Europe, new world foods.
Corn took no time in taking over the diets of the whole world - potatoes arrived in the mid 1500's and its popularity made it a staple crop, especially for Ireland. Tomatoes were at first thought poisonous, but when the explorers saw that it didn't affect the natives, they tried it, and brought tomatoes to Spain and Italy who took it to heart where it became the basis of their Italian cuisine. Chocolate, "cacao" as the Mayan Indians called it, was so highly prized it was used for money and only the royalty and wealthy could grind the beans to make a rich beverage. The Aztecs ate and drank it without any sugar, Europeans added sugar and milk.
Tobacco was smoked by the Indians for hundreds of years. The seeds Columbus brought back had the farmers growing it for a relaxation medicine. Jean Nicot introduced it to France, and Nicotiana became its Botanical name.
Pineapple was first tasted by the explorers and taken to Europe, then planted as the favorite fruit for the royalty and wealthy people. Peanuts are native to South America and grown for 1,000 years, settlers feed them to their hogs.
The sunflower was introduced to Europe in the 1500s and its seeds became a snack food and birdseed.
Squash, particularly the pumpkin, were cooked and uncooked.
Vanilla originated in Mexico and became one of our most popular flavors.
Quinine was discovered by the missionaries, who found the Indians used the bark of cinchona trees as medicine, our only known treatment for malaria. When the trees began to die out in the 1800s, they were successfully planted in India and Indonesia.
Other plants we had here in the Americas are dahlias, wild rice, beans, avocados, marigolds, cashews, casaba or manioc used to make tapioca, agave used for fiber in clothes and ropes, and to make tequila.
Recent articles have been published, researching the sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas, found by Columbus and mentioned in his records on his fourth voyage. In America, we enjoy the yellow or orange varieties, but other country's varieties range from white to purple. As one of the oldest vegetables known to mankind, its adaptability multiplies it quickly as it forms its roots. Is there anyone who has never stuck a sweet potato into a glass of water and let its roots vine all over the kitchen?
Sweet potato is from the morning glory family, and the correct spelling, I've been informed, is one word - sweetpotato, but the greater use is two words. Another big debate is which are sweet potatoes and what is a yam, two different vegetables. Sweet potatoes are found in long orange or yellow tubers that taper to a point. The darker skinned ones are what we refer to as yams in error. A true yam is a tuber of the vine Dioscorea batatas, and not really related to the sweet potato. Most are sweeter than the sweet potato and can vine over seven feet long. Yams have a brown or black skin, resembling tree bark and an off white or purple flesh. They are also marketed by their Spanish name bonito.
Sweet potato plants take hold in warm weather. Plant 12 inches apart and rows 3 feet apart if you want a bed of ground cover, in well drained soil that's not too rich. Cover new plants for three days with an downturned pot to protect them from the hot sun. A poor soil crop, it will benefit from a little fertilizer. They are not sweet when first dug up. A resting period is needed to cure, and don't wash off the dirt as they cure. Clean before cooking time. You can have sweet potato fries now.
Thank a tree for our fresh air.
Joyce Comingore is a master gardener, hibiscus enthusiast, member of the FM/LC Garden Council Board and member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.