What is a Vegetable?

Vegetable originally meant any plant, as in "the vegetable kingdom", or Twenty Questions' opening gambit, "animal, mineral, or vegetable?" And fruit meant any edible plant part. With the development of the science of botany, however, the meanings of the words have shifted. Vegetable is now used to refer to herbaceous (non-woody) food plants or their edible parts. Fruits are the reproductive parts of a plant, the ripened ovary of a flower and its contents and related parts; vegetables as well as other plants like trees can have fruits.

Sounds simple enough, till you realize that this definition of a vegetable is pretty loose indeed. What I consider an edible food you might not touch, and we'd probably be united in turning up our noses at the foods eaten by the !Kung hunter-gatherers. So while it's pretty clear what a fruit is - "a baby in a box with its lunch", as one amusing characterization has it - it's not so clear what a vegetable is, botanically speaking.

Another reason for the great debate about the distinction between vegetables and fruits is that, in the west at least, vegetables are usually considered to be savoury foods, while fruits are sweet. By custom we eat vegetables for dinner, fruits for dessert. This means that by custom we class some fruits as vegetables - tomatoes, squash, avocado - even though, botanically speaking, they're not. Another truism about these two classes of foods is that fruits are the ones kids will eat.

Interestingly, in the 1930's, the American Supreme Court ruled that the tomato was legally a vegetable rather than a fruit. It all happened because a food importer wanted to claim duty free status for tomatoes he was importing; at that time fruits were not subject to duties. The Supreme Court sided with custom, because tomatoes are "usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meat, which constitute the principal part of the meal, and not, like fruits, generally as dessert." But all this proves is that the United States is a litigious society, and one that sometimes elects presidents who aren't too bright: when governor, Ronald Reagan famously signed a declaration that ketchup a vegetable.

I've been speaking of western custom, but our classifications don't always carry across cultures; I remember my astonishment at seeing corn ice cream for sale in Asia. But hey, why not? Green mango salad has to be tasted to be believed; the mix of sweet, salt, and spice so beloved by the Thai is bewitching to western palates as well.

Another thing about fruits versus vegetables: many colloquial sayings seem to suggest that fruits are good, veggies bad. Think about it: "you're a peach", "the apple of my eye", "a plum job". Sure, a fruit is a derogatory term for a homosexual, but a vegetable is someone who is either extremely stupid or totally incapacitated, even brain dead. Veggies get a bad rap! But I digress.

Types of Vegetables

By now it won't surprise you that there is no accepted universal way of classifying vegetables into discrete categories. But I'll give it a try.

Root vegetables
These are high in nutrients and low in fat and calories. They tend to be relatively cheap, at least in the west, and store well, so they are generally available year-round. Some are quite spicy, like some of the radishes and horseradish; others are sweet, like carrots and beets. Parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas have more subtle flavours, but tend to incite strong feelings of love or hate. Less common root vegetables, at least where I grew up, include burdock, celeriac, kohlrabi, lotus root and salsify. Though root vegetables don't need refrigeration in the short term, they will keep longer if kept in a root cellar or the modern equivalent, the refrigerator.

Also known as corms, they are actually swollen underground plant stems. They are high in carbohydrates and are used throughout the world as a starchy staple. Potatoes, yams, and sweet potatoes are all members of this group, as are arrowroot, cassava, Jerusalem artichokes, jicama, malanga, taro, and water chestnuts. Like root vegetables, these keep well.

Knobby underground stems, often with a pungent flavour. They are often used for flavourings, not as star attractions in themselves. Think galangal, ginger, and turmeric.

I'm thinking here of onions and garlic. Both the parts that are underground and aboveground can be eaten, and are prized for their sharp flavour that enhances so many dishes. Green garlic or garlic scapes, green onions or scallions, chives, and leeks all have green stems which can be eaten, and so do not store as well as the drier garlic, onions, and shallots. You may only be familiar with yellow cooking onions, but there are many varieties of onion bred, including pearl onions, purple onions, and Vidalia onions, to name only a few. Lots of varieties of garlic exist as well.

Cabbages or brassica
Not only what you might think, this is a big group of vegetables eaten throughout the world. They tend to have a short broad stem and leaves or flowers forming a compact head. They are nutritious, containing a lot of Vitamin C and fibre. Let's see: there's green and purple cabbages with large heavy dense heads, plus the milder and less dense napa cabbage; and there's every child's favourite, brussels sprouts. These keep well in cool conditions.

Salad greens
Lettuce in all its forms, such as iceberg and romaine and butter and arugula or rocket and all the baby lettuces found in mesclun; plus chicory and radicchio (which isn't really green but is good in a salad) and cress and endive and mizuna and spinach and tatsoi. Mmm! Delicate in texture, these don't last so long; treat them with care. Very good for you!

Cooking greens
Less delicate than salad greens, some of these are just big siblings, left to grow a little longer, so they're tougher. As the name suggests, these benefit from a quick steam, stir fry, or saute. There are many Asian varieties grouped under the general name choy in Chinese, of which bok choi or bok choy may be the most familiar to many westerners. There's mustard greens and collard greens and beet greens and kale and sorrel and spinach and Swiss chard and water spinach. Tasty and nutritious.

Flowering vegetables (inflorescents)
Though related to cabbages, broccoli and cauliflower (plus the newcomer broccoflower) are distinguished by their flowering heads. Artichokes and banana blossoms are other flowering vegetables. Lots of Asian cooking greens can have edible flowers on them as well.

As their name suggests, sport edible stalks prized by humans. Asparagus, bamboo shoots, celery, fennel, hearts of palm, fiddleheads, and rhubarb (one of those vegetables that's treated as a fruit in the west) are all part of this group.

Mushrooms, cultivated or wild. Button mushrooms, chantarelles, cremini (which grow in to portobello) enoki, morels, oyster, porcini, shiitake, straw, tree ear, truffles, these are all wonderful edible forms of fungus.

Fruits that are often treated as vegetables
Avocadoes, capiscum (that's your sweet peppers and your hot chili peppers both), corn or sweetcorn, cucumbers, eggplants, olives, squashes (varieties too numerous to mention), tomatillos, and tomatoes. Another big group here are the legumes, which is to say fresh and dried peas and beans. Some have pods delicate enough to be eaten (green beans, snow peas); others are divested of their shells, after which the seeds are eaten fresh (fava beans, lima beans, English peas). Many of these latter can be dried, which increases their shelf life; think black beans, chick peas, lentils, kidney beans, pinto beans, split peas, and literally dozens more. Only thing that unites these is that they contain seeds. But you knew that.

Though perhaps not as beloved in the west as they could be, in fact we probably eat them every day, as they are commonly processed and function as thickeners and stabilizers in common products like ice cream, instant pudding, salad dressings, and toothpaste. In Asia, particularly Japan, however, sea vegetables are very popular and eaten in open and visible ways, which is good, because they are high in vitamins, minerals, and protein and low in calories. You know that nori is wrapped around many types of sushi and maki; there's also dulse, konbu, laver, and wakame, to name a few. Usually dried and rehydrated in the west, though it may be eaten fresh near the sea.

Dried legumes which have been soaked in water till they germinate. They are tasty and cheap, and can be thrown in salads or, if they're slightly heartier, stir fried lightly. They don't store particularly well, but can be refreshed by being plunged into ice water.

Nopales or cactus paddles are the only ones I'm aware of, but it should be clear that humans are nothing if not inventive when it comes to their stomachs, so I'm sure there's lots more.

The Cook's Thesaurus (www.foodsubs.com)

Veg`e*ta*ble (?), a. [F. v'eg'etable growing, capable of growing, formerly also, as a noun, a vegetable, from L. vegetabilis enlivening, from vegetare to enliven, invigorate, quicken, vegetus enlivened, vigorous, active, vegere to quicken, arouse, to be lively, akin to vigere to be lively, to thrive, vigil watchful, awake, and probably to E. wake, v. See Vigil, Wake, v.]


Of or pertaining to plants; having the nature of, or produced by, plants; as, a vegetable nature; vegetable growths, juices, etc.

Blooming ambrosial fruit Of vegetable gold. Milton.


Consisting of, or comprising, plants; as, the vegetable kingdom.

Vegetable kingdom Nat. Hist., that primary division of living things which includes all plants. The classes of the vegetable kingdom have been grouped differently by various botanists. The following is one of the best of the many arrangements of the principal subdivisions.

<--- Note: this section was divided into two columns, the right-hand column being delimited and separated from the left-hand column by a long brace on the its left side. The portion in the right-hand column of each of these two divisions is instead included here within braces. The definitions of the divisions were in the left-hand column, centered on the right-hand segments. --> I. Phaenogamia (called also Phanerogamia).

Plants having distinct flowers and true seeds.

{ 1. Dicotyledons (called also Exogens). -- Seeds with two or more cotyledons. Stems with the pith, woody fiber, and bark concentrically arranged. Divided into two subclasses: Angiosperms, having the woody fiber interspersed with dotted or annular ducts, and the seed contained in a true ovary; Gymnosperms, having few or no ducts in the woody fiber, and the seeds naked. 2. Monocotyledons (called also Endogens). -- Seeds with single cotyledon. Stems with slender bundles of woody fiber not concentrically arranged, and with no true bark.}

II. Cryptogamia.

Plants without true flowers, and reproduced by minute spores of various kinds, or by simple cell division.

{ 1. Acrogens. -- Plants usually with distinct stems and leaves, existing in two alternate conditions, one of which is nonsexual and sporophoric, the other sexual and oophoric. Divided into Vascular Acrogens, or Pteridophyta, having the sporophoric plant conspicuous and consisting partly of vascular tissue, as in Ferns, Lycopods, and Equiseta, and Cellular Acrogens, or Bryophyta, having the sexual plant most conspicuous, but destitute of vascular tissue, as in Mosses and Scale Mosses. 2. Thallogens. -- Plants without distinct stem and leaves, consisting of a simple or branched mass of cellular tissue, or educed to a single cell. Reproduction effected variously. Divided into Algae, which contain chlorophyll or its equivalent, and which live upon air and water, and Fungi, which contain no chlorophyll, and live on organic matter. (Lichens are now believed to be fungi parasitic on included algae.}

⇒ Many botanists divide the Phaenogamia primarily into Gymnosperms and Angiosperms, and the latter into Dicotyledons and Monocotyledons. Others consider Pteridophyta and Bryophyta to be separate classes. Thallogens are variously divided by different writers, and the places for diatoms, slime molds, and stoneworts are altogether uncertain.

For definitions, see these names in the Vocabulary.


© Webster 1913.

Veg"e*ta*ble (?), n.

1. Biol.

A plant. See Plant.


A plant used or cultivated for food for man or domestic animals, as the cabbage, turnip, potato, bean, dandelion, etc.; also, the edible part of such a plant, as prepared for market or the table.

<-- 3. A person who has permanently lost consciousness, due to damage to the brain, but remains alive; sometimes continued life requires support by machinery such as breathing tubes. SUch a person is said to be in a vegetative state. -->

Vegetables and fruits are sometimes loosely distinguished by the usual need of cooking the former for the use of man, while the latter may be eaten raw; but the distinction often fails, as in the case of quinces, barberries, and other fruits, and lettuce, celery, and other vegetables. Tomatoes if cooked are vegetables, if eaten raw are fruits.


© Webster 1913.

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