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Potatoes: AD 200

The potato, a plant native to high terrain in the Peruvian Andes, is believed to have been cultivated there at least 1800 years ago.

In graves of that period archaeologists have found dried potatoes and pottery with potato motifs - indicative of the esteem in which this plant, with its exceptionally high-yielding crop, is already held.

Tobacco: before the 15th century

The tobacco plant, native to South America, Mexico and the West Indies, is from early times cultivated and treasured by the inhabitants of these regions. Images of Mayan priests, carved in stone and dating probably from the first millennium AD, show them smoking pipes and puffing the smoke towards the sun.

A pipe is essential equipment in American tobacco rituals (most famously in the pipe of peace, or calumet). Curved pipes of bone, wood and clay, dating from many centuries before the arrival of Europeans, have been found in the Mississippi valley.

Chocolate: before the 15th century

The cocoa tree, the seeds of which are the source of chocolate, is (like tobacco) native to central and south America. Roasted and ground, then flavoured in hot water with vanilla and spices, the seeds are the basis of a drink used by the Aztecs and adopted by Europeans.

There is evidence that the Mayas also valued cocoa beans. So chocolate as a drink may go back to the early centuries of the Christian era. The American Indians are able to derive much of their crop from wild trees, but cocoa becomes a fully cultivated plant after Columbus takes seeds back to Spain.

Coffee: 15th century

At much the same time as cocoa seeds are brought from America to Europe for cultivation, coffee beans make the much shorter journey from their indigenous home in Ethiopia to Arabia - where they are probably first cultivated in the 15th century. They are the seeds of a tropical evergreen shrub.

The use of coffee as a drink spreads rapidly in Muslim countries, and reaches Europe by the 17th century.

Plants across the Atlantic: from1492

The most fruitful transfer of plants in all history begins with the first voyage of Columbus to America in 1492. In Cuba, in November of that year, members of his crew discover what they describe as 'a sort of grain called maize'.

Maize, or corn, spreads rapidly after being taken back to Europe by Columbus and then carried further east in Portuguese ships. Of equal importance in agriculture, though crossing the Atlantic half a century later, is the potato. And a third American species new to the visitors, even though inedible, eventually has an even greater impact worldwide - tobacco.

Meanwhile plants imported from Europe become of economic significance in the new world. When Columbus returns to Hispaniola on his second voyage, in 1493, he brings with him sugar cane. The crop does well and is soon planted in all Spanish settlements in the West Indies. Conquistadors carry it with them on their expeditions into central and south America. Sugar plantations, worked by slaves, become a characteristic feature of colonial America.

Not long after the arrival of sugar, Hispaniola also receives from the Canary Islands a consignment of banana plants (long cultivated in tropical Asia). These too become an important part of the economy of Latin America.

Tobacco outside America: 16th - 20th century

During the 16th century an interest in tobacco develops in Europe, at first (ironic though it seems now) for its supposedly medicinal properties. By the 1560s the plant is being grown in physic gardens in all the sea-going nations with an interest in America - Spain, Portugal, France and England.

Soon tobacco plants are carried even further afield, mainly on Spanish and Portuguese ships with worldwide trading interests.

Smoking proves pleasantly addictive, and prevails even against such authoritative opposition as that of the British king James I - who attacks it with passionate vehemence as a Loathsome custom, in his Counterblast to Tobacco of 1604.

By the 20th century the whole world has succumbed to the habit. Today the American continent remains the world's largest producer of tobacco, closely followed by China. But some 90 other countries also cultivate the plant commercially.

Irish potatoes: 17th century

Ireland is the first European region where the potato is grown as a food crop, rather than a delicacy or even aphrodisiac (the plant's two main uses after being brought from America to Spain, and then dispersed among European physic gardens, during the second half of the 16th century).

Tradition states that the potato is first grown in Ireland on the estates of Walter Raleigh. This may well be correct. What is certain is that by the end of the 17th century it is a major crop in Ireland (where it becomes the staple diet, with the failure of the potato crop causing famine in the 1840s). During the 18th century most other European countries adopt the potato as one of their basic foods.

This History is as yet incomplete.

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