Aromatic plants captivate us with their penetrating, often memory- and emotion-laden fragrances. The scented substances they contain (resins, balms, oils, essences) may be extracted from their roots, seeds or other parts.
Aromatic plants have been used throughout history for both sacred and everyday purposes. They were part of religious and funerary ceremonies as far back as Antiquity, in the form of incense, smoke, unguents and perfumed oils. Over time, they became popular in perfumes and cosmetics, aromatherapy and pharmacology. They are also used in cooking, for flavouring desserts, herbal teas, beverages and a wide variety of dishes. Note that aromatics are used for their fragrance, and spices for their taste, although the same plant may be used for both purposes.
Forage crops and green manure
Plants grown as fodder for livestock are known as forage crops. Such crops may be legumes (alfalfa, clover, soybeans), grasses (corn, oats) or a combination of both. Animals may be allowed to graze on them or they may be harvested before they mature, and cured or stored in silos or bales for later use.
Many nutrient-rich forage plants are also grown so that they can be ploughed back into the soil and used as green manure. They return huge quantities of organic material to the soil, where it is available for subsequent crops. This technique, practised as far back as ancient Greece, is also a way of limiting erosion, improving soil structure and productivity and reducing reliance on fertilizers.
Asian vegetables and herbs
This plot contains vegetables and herbs commonly used in Asian cuisine. They are flavourful, nutritious and simple to prepare and are usually eaten raw or lightly cooked and served with spices and sauces. It is easy to incorporate them in Western recipes: for instance, bok choy can replace broccoli or cabbage, and peppery-tasting mustard leaves can be cooked like spinach to add flavour to sautéed dishes and soups.
Many of these vegetables belong to the Brassicaceae (cabbage) family, whose members have recognized anti-carcinogenic properties. They grow well in cool, damp weather and are well suited to small gardens and container growing.
We usually think of fruit as something sweet, eaten as dessert, and vegetables as being served with the main course. From a botanical point of view, though, a fruit is the result of the fertilization of a flower and serves to protect and disseminate the seeds it contains. This means that tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, peppers and squash are all fruit, more specifically, fruit vegetables.
Fruit vegetables are high in fibre, vitamins and minerals. There is a tremendous difference in taste between a fruit picked when ripe, still warm from the sun, and a fruit picked unripe and left to ripen afterward. Some fruit vegetables like cucumbers and summer squash are harvested before they are fully mature, however. They all require heat, sunshine and regular watering to grow. Given the rather short growing season in Quebec, gardeners often start some of these plants from seed indoors.
This category of foods has not always been popular. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, people thought of bulbs and roots as poor foodstuffs, eaten at best by peasants. Today, potatoes, parsnips and carrots are properly appreciated as top-notch healthy foods. The starch they contain is digested slowly, making them a good source of long-term energy. They also provide vitamins and minerals.
In general, we eat the fleshy part of root vegetables, raw or cooked. Some can also be processed to make flour, starch, alcohol, sugar or coffee substitutes. In Europe, table sugar comes mainly from sugar beets, while in Quebec it is made from sugar cane imported from countries to the south of us.
The vegetable plants in this category come in a wide variety of colours, flavours, shapes and textures. Different parts are consumed, too. We enjoy the leaves of cabbage, lettuce and spinach, while we eat the flower buds of broccoli, cauliflower and artichokes and the fleshy leaf stalks of celery and rhubarb. We also eat plants’ buds. Asparagus emerges from the ground as spears and Brussels sprouts form in the leaf axils. Plant stems also make their way onto our plates. Kohlrabi is actually a swollen stem and leeks are layers of superposed leaves.
All these vegetables are highly nutritious and have anti-carcinogenic properties.
Plants in this large botanical family produce a characteristic fruit called a seed pod. The seeds are eaten on their own or with the pod, at different stages of maturity: raw (green and yellow beans, green peas, peanuts), dried (lentils, various peas and beans) or fermented (soybeans).
Growers also appreciate all these species for another reason: their roots form an association with bacteria that cause nodules to develop and allow the plant to fix atmospheric nitrogen. These plants improve the soil and reduce reliance on nitrogen fertilizers.
Close to 90% of all legumes grown around the world are eaten by people in developing countries. However, they are regaining tremendous popularity with health-conscious consumers in the industrialized world because they are such an excellent source of protein and are low in fat.
Oleaginous plants from a large number of botanical families are grown mainly for their oil-rich seeds or fruit. In addition to being used in food for humans, vegetable oil is an ingredient in cosmetics, paints, plastics, detergents, biofuels, ink and much more. Many oleaginous plants are also fed to livestock in the form of meal or seed cakes. For instance, flax seed is added to chicken feed to increase eggs’ omega-3 fatty acid content.
Canada has gone from being an importing country 30 years ago to a net exporter of oil and edible oleaginous plants today. The main crops involved are canola (a Canadian variety of rapeseed), soybeans, flax and sunflowers.
Berries, in hues of red, blue and black, delight young and old with their many flavours. They are also rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
In addition to the traditional jams, jellies and sauces, some Quebec growers now offer berries in a variety of delicious guises, from fruit-based ice wine and liqueurs to oils and vinegars.
Pollinating insects play an important role in fruit production. Growers place beehives in their fields, for example, as a way of boosting their berry crop yields and quality. But pesticides and bad weather can hamper these valuable allies and even threaten their survival.
Grain plants provide some of the world’s basic foodstuffs. In addition, certain grain crops are harvested before they are fully mature to serve as fodder for livestock.
Over 70% of cultivated land worldwide is devoted to growing grain. With the widespread use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, yields today are 50 times greater than during World War II. This has had a huge negative impact on soil life and species diversity, however. The rising popularity of sustainable agriculture and its respect for air, water and soil quality augur well for biodiversity. For consumers, these new practices mean that organic and fair-trade products are more widely available.
Since time immemorial, people have used some plants’ leaves, seeds, roots, stems and bulbs to enhance the flavour of food. These plants may also be used to stimulate one’s appetite, aid digestion or preserve food.
Most of the plants grown here are herbs belonging to the Apiaceae family (coriander and parsley) or the Lamiaceae family (basil and marjoram). The vegetables grown in this patch can also be used as flavour enhancers (onions, garlic, shallots and fennel).
Growing spice plants is a way of enjoying their flavour, beauty and fragrance. They can be grown in easily accessible containers or incorporated in a flower or vegetable garden. Many of these plants attract pollinating insects.
Tobacco is a member of the Solanaceae family, along with tomatoes and potatoes. Its aromatic leaves are used in making cigarettes, cigars and pipe and chewing tobacco. A number of cultivars are also grown as ornamentals.
Tobacco was domesticated some 8,000 years ago. Natives were growing it in the Americas long before Europeans arrived. It was part of many ceremonies, where it was smoked, inhaled, chewed, steeped, taken as snuff or offered to the Great Spirits to invoke their blessings.
Some of the earliest settlers in Quebec grew tobacco as a cash crop. Today, as a result of anti-smoking campaigns and freer international trade, very little tobacco is grown here commercially.
Although natural dye-producing plants are used today mainly for craft purposes, for thousands of years they were the only source of dyestuffs, adding colour to the cloth and garments of the world’s greatest civilizations. It was not until the late 19th century, in fact, that synthetic dyes gradually replaced natural dyestuffs. The first such synthetic product, Perkin’s violet or mauveine, was an aniline dye discovered accidentally by a young British chemist attempting to synthesize the anti-malaria drug quinine.
All parts of a dye-producing plant may be used to obtain dyestuffs. In some cases, the colour may be visible on the plant before it is harvested, while in other cases the colour is revealed only on contact with air, when certain chemicals are added or after fermentation. The final colour may also be determined by the extraction processes and mordants used.
Textile plants supply natural fibres used in making such everyday necessities as clothing, fabric, canvas, nets and rope. Some of these plants, like flax, have been known and used for thousands of years. Just think of the linen cloth used to wrap the bodies of the pharaohs discovered in Egyptian tombs.
Cotton, jute and linen are still very popular, but the synthetic fibres available since the early 20th century have edged out other once-common plant fibres. These new fibres, made from petroleum, coal, glass and other products, are not biodegradable, however. For environmental reasons and because they are well suited to specialized uses, there is renewed interest in some plant fibres, including the somewhat controversial hemp.