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Seed Sorting

Updated: Jan 29

While considering garnets and pomegranates, and how the names are derived from the Latin granatus, it made me think about the seeds we plant and the seeds we eat.

So many different seeds, grains, nuts available in bags in the supermarket seem removed from their trees, bushes and plants. In France, I was surprised when making peach or apricot jam that the recipe suggested cracking open the pit and adding the finely chopped nut to the preserve. It’s logical, I suppose, since almonds are in the same family, (which incidentally all produce cyanide in their seeds) but I hadn’t put two and two together… I think of peaches as fruit and almonds as nuts. There was a couple of weeks each year when the mounds of fresh walnuts were in the shops. They didn’t seem very nutty!

It seems like the more we try to categorise the world, the more grey areas there are and the therefore the more categories we need. The early taxonomists, driven by a determination collect and classify were keen to put everything they identified in a “box” and fix it in some sort of hierarchy of complexity. So they assigned organisms to Kingdoms, Phylla, Families, Genera and Species and a variety of levels in between. But, as with many things, the more information that comes to light the more complicated and nuanced the subject becomes and at each level thy found strange cases…like the sea anemones whose DNA suggests they are both plants and animals and therefore can’t be easily assigned even to a Kingdom. Browsing the wares of any greengrocers is enough to confirm that ambiguity is ubiquitous. Of course, you think, there’s no need to overcomplicate things. Simplicity is practical. Labels are useful. A seed is a seed. A nut is a nut, a fruit is a fruit. A grain is a grain.

But what about cereals, legumes, drupes, berries? Where do they fit in?

Some definitions might be helpful to clear up the confusion…

  • Seed - a small object produced by a plant from which a new plant can grow, or more technically the fertilised ripened ovule of a flowering plant containing an embryo and capable normally of germination to produce a new plant.

  • Nut - a fruit consisting of a hard or tough shell around an edible kernel. Nuts are strictly a particular kind of dry fruit that has a single seed, a hard shell, and a protective husk.

  • Fruit - In a botanical sense, a fruit is the fleshy or dry ripened ovary of a flowering plant, enclosing the seed or seeds. Apricots, bananas, and grapes, as well as bean pods, corn grains, tomatoes, cucumbers, and (in their shells) acorns and almonds, are all technically fruits.

  • Grain - a seed or fruit of a cereal grass,

  • Cereal - a plant (such as a grass) yielding starchy grain suitable for food

  • Legumes - A legume refers to any plant from the Fabaceae family that would include its leaves, stems, and pods.

  • Pulses -  A pulse is the edible seed from a legume plant. Pulses include beans, lentils, and peas. For example, a pea pod is a legume, but the pea inside the pod is the pulse. The entire legume plant is often used in agricultural applications (as cover crops or in livestock feed or fertilizers), while the seeds or pulses are what typically end up on our dinner plates. Beans in their various forms (kidney, black, pinto, navy, chickpeas, etc.) are just one type of pulse.

  • Drupe -  in botany, simple fleshy fruit that usually contains a single seed, such as the cherry, peach, and olive. As a simple fruit, a drupe is derived from a single ovary of an individual flower. The outer layer of the ovary wall is a thin skin or peel, the middle layer is thick and usually fleshy (though sometimes tough, as in the almond, or fibrous, as in the coconut), and the inner layer, known as the pit, or putamen, is hard and stony. The pit, which is often confused with the seed itself, usually has one seed or, rarely, two or three, in which case only one develops fully.

  • Berry - In botany, a true “berry” is a fruit that grows from a single ovary. It usually has a slightly soft exocarp (outer peel), fleshy pericarp (middle portion), and soft endocarp (area that surrounds the seeds). Typically, berries also have many seeds. So watermelons, cucumbers and bananas are berries while strawberries and raspberries are not!

Well, that’s probably as clear as mud now. Some nuts are nuts. Others are drupes, or legumes. All berries are fruits (but what are wheat berries?) Is rice a cereal?

The ambiguity associated with attempts at classification can be frustrating but I feel that actually the curiosities, the unexpected situations are the ones that stick in the memory and change the way we look at things.

Knowing that bananas are berries, melons and cucumbers are berries but strawberries, raspberries and blackberries  are not, changes the preconception that all berries are sweet and juicy, round, brightly-coloured fruits. It seems unfair to exclude strawberries, raspberries and blackberries from the berry family, they should certainly be honorary members! And I wonder, would the melons and bananas would feel out of place there at a berry family gathering? Even although they meet the entry criteria. And what of the other families? Legumes, grains and seeds.

I suspect seeds would not be so concerned with putting themselves in labelled boxes. It would probably drive them nuts (or bananas).

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