Fruit or Vegetable? Botanical Classification versus Culinary Usage.

Fruit means more than you think!  Whether it’s the green bell pepper on your combo pizza or the eggplant in your sabich, fruit is everywhere.  


Sugar content is a good indicator of the culinary classification of fruits versus vegetables, but this rule has many exceptions.  Citrus, like lemons and limes, are not super sweet, yet there’s no argument about these fruits actually being fruits.  Carrots have a pretty high sugar content, but we all agree on their veggie status. 

The botanical distinction between fruits and vegetables is anatomical of the plant in question.  For example, a tomato has seeds, which would result in reproduction.  Rhubarb is the stalk of a plant, and has no means of proliferation after consumption.  A tomato is a botanical fruit and rhubarb is botanically a vegetable.  Human use, and particularly Anglo-American use, of these foods are culinarily reversed: tomatoes are generally served in savory dishes and condiments, with rhubarb often being baked into pies and cooked down for jam.  Interestingly, rhubarb was once referred to as “pieplant,” because of its usage in sweet pies or tarts.  The word “tart” is etymologically a mystery, but wouldn’t it be neat as a reference to the tartness of rhubarb?

Fruit is botanically classified as the reproductive method of plants, often accomplished by seeds that are consumed and dispersed for further propagation.  Vegetables are part or all of a plant: celery root or stalks, tubers (potatoes, etc.), onions, broccoli stalks, etc.    

Does this distinction between fruits and vegetables really matter?  Only for anyone planning on becoming a botanist.  Or being overly pedantic.  Did you know coffee is actually a seed, not a bean?  Potentially, this will never catch on, as it sounds mildly awkward or (ironically) uninformed.

Tomatoes are probably the most contentious in this regard, very certainly being a fruit, but culinarily used near exclusively as a savory vegetable.  Tomatoes, if you weren’t paying attention in history class, are a New World crop; they are not native to Italy, even though their cuisine might indicate otherwise.  Neither is the potato native to Ireland; potatoes are another New World crop, regardless of how seamlessly the Irish have adapted to them.  End of tangent.   

More on topic and seasonal, pumpkins and other winter squash are actually fruits.  Why?  Seeds!  Culinarily, these are mostly treated as vegetables, particularly the acorn and delicata varieties.  An exception being varieties like butternut and sugar pie, as these are often found in desserts, especially this time of year.  Also in beverages, if you venture off the Starbucks menu for a pumpkin spice latte.  Never would I have thought that pumpkin would be good in coffee, but there are a few cafes around Seattle proving this to be true.

Speaking of spice making it nice, ginger: fruit or vegetable?  It’s a rhizome, which means vegetable!  In botany, a rhizome is “a continuously growing horizontal underground stem which puts out lateral shoots and adventitious roots at intervals” by dictionary definition.  Turmeric is also a vegetable and rhizome.  If you want to get really into it, the difference between a rhizome and a tuber (another vegetable, like a potato or yam) is growth, direction and multiplication.  Rhizomes grow horizontal, while tubers can grow however their little plant hearts desire.  Tubers have nodes of new growth, while rhizomes have shoots into the soil and stems on top.  The minutiae of botany is fascinating.

I’ll ask again, why does this matter?  Does it seem overly pedantic?  Maybe.  The breadth of fruit defined means we at City Fruit are even more inclusive, as City Vegetable would be very limiting in their titular attempt at harvesting.