Of fruits and vegetables: Savory vs. sweet

We often go to our favorite grocery store or farm market to buy fresh fruits and vegetables to add to our diets. Many people even plant vegetable gardens, fruit trees and small fruits such as strawberries for their culinary delights.

Have you ever wondered why fruit is classified as fruit and why a vegetable is classified as a vegetable? What type of question is that? Hold on; let me explain.

Culinary uses methods in which a plant is prepared, and its traditional use decides classification as a vegetable or fruit. Fruits are classified as being sweet or tart and vegetables as having a savory taste.

This classification has even been proven in the court of law, when it was brought before the Supreme Court in 1893, in the case of Nix v. Hedden, to decide the status of a tomato. At that time, the government-imposed import duties on vegetables but not fruits. Even though botanically a tomato is a fruit the court unanimously classified it as a vegetable. Rhubarb has also been subject to legal scrutiny by the court and was classified as a fruit due to its culinary use in desserts.

The Oxford Dictionary describes botany as the scientific study of plants including their physiology, structure, genetics, ecology, distribution, classification, and economic importance. Breaking this down further, botanists consider fruits as ripened ovaries of a flowering plant which develops after its seeds have been fertilized. This definition would not only include cantaloupe, peaches, and watermelons but also olives, avocados, peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes.

The botanical definition of a vegetable is anything that is the root, stem, leaf or flower of a plant. Rhubarb as well as the leafy stalks of celery are technically vegetables. This means broccoli and cauliflower are vegetables because at harvest we consume the unopened flower buds of these plants. Botanically zucchini and beans are fruits, while potatoes and carrots are vegetables.

Berries are defined as fruits that come from a single ovary but have multiple seeds. Grapes and bananas fall into this category. Did you know peppers also fall into this category and are botanically a berry?

As with all things in horticulture, there are always exceptions. Strawberries are not considered a fruit or a vegetable. Hold onto your seat, they belong to a special plant structure known as fleshy receptacles. Doesn’t that sound delicious spread over your morning toast? The only fruit part of a strawberry is its seeds. Other fleshy receptacles include raspberries and blackberries. When raspberries are harvested, the fruit comes off the receptacle (the white central core that stays on the plant), and the berry is hollow inside. In blackberries, the receptacle stays attached to the fruit when picked.

How about a quiz: What is a peanut’s botanical classification?

If you answered vegetable, your argument would be that it grows underground with the roots. If you answered fruit, your argument would be that it grows underground in pods as ripened ovaries like above ground beans.

If you answered a nut, your argument would be the author of this article is a nut case. Hmm, based on these arguments, what is correct answer? This author refuses to answer this question for obvious reasons.

Regardless of how you classify fruits and vegetables, enjoy a large variety of these savory and sweet delights in your daily diet to promote good health and add enjoyment to your culinary experience.

The author acknowledges Kathy Wolfe, retired Skagit County-Washington State University Extension master gardener for her contributions to this article.