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9 Chinese Native Plants that changed Western food culture and habits

Chinese Native Plants

Chinese native plants that shaped Western food culture and traditions. Every day, every moment of our lives, even the most trivial, to a more careful and curious look, can offer countless ideas to reflect on.

Our eating habits and traditions, even the most established ones, embody stories of epic wars, trades, and other fascinating events.

The food on our tables is particularly suitable for this game.

The Colombian exchange has not only changed the lifestyles and nutrition of the West but also had important consequences on East Asia.

But this influence is not unidirectional. Unlike the Colombian exchange that has a precise starting date, the spread of Chinese and Asian plants in the West has been more fluid and it took place at a much slower rate.

Related: 10 American Native Plants that changed Chinese food culture and habits, The 10 Most Polarizing food in China50+ Lucky Plants & Flowers for the New Year


The orange presumably has originated in southern Asia, in particular China or India. It is unknown in the wild state and it was first cultivated in China around 2500 BC.

The fruit was introduced to modern Andalusia, Spain, by the Moors and cultivation started in the 10th century. The sweet orange was unknown in Europe until the late 15th century or the beginning of the 16th century.

The color orange is named after the fruit. Before the introduction of the fruit, the color orange existed in Europe, but it was called yellow-red. Italian and Portuguese traders brought orange trees into the Mediterranean area along with the Sanskrit naranga, which gradually became part of several European languages: “naranja” in Spanish, “laranja” in Portuguese, “arancia” in Italian, and “orange” in English.

orange image

The fruit was considered exotic and a luxury item. By 1646 the sweet orange was well known throughout Europe.

Spanish travelers introduced the fruit into the Americas. On his second voyage in 1493, Columbus brought orange, lemon, and citron seeds from the Canary Islands, in Hispaniola. According to the tradition, Columbus planted the first orange tree in the New World on 22 November 1493.

Vincent Van Gogh. Still Life with Basket and Six Oranges
Vincent Van Gogh. Still Life with Basket and Six Oranges. 1888.

According to one account, Ponce de León carried them into Florida in 1521. According to other accounts, Pedro Menendéz de Avilés brought the sweet orange into Florida at St. Augustine in 1565. According to Oviedo y Valdes, sweet orange groves were abundant in the West Indies.


The origin of the fruit is unknown. Lemons have first grown in Assam (India), northern Burma, or China. The lemon is a hybrid between bitter orange and citron.

Lemons were imported into the Roman Empire during the second century AD, but they were not widely cultivated. It was distributed widely throughout the Arab world and the Mediterranean region between 1000 and 1150.


The first large cultivation of lemons in Europe began in Genoa in the middle of the 15th century. The lemon was introduced to the American continent in 1493, during the second voyage of Christopher Columbus.

Spaniards spread the fruit throughout the New World. In the 19th century, lemons were increasingly planted in Florida and California.

Vincent Van Gogh. Still life with lemons on a plate. 1887.

The origin of the word “lemon” may be Middle Eastern. The word draws from the Old French limon, then Italian limone, from the Arabic laymūn or līmūn, and from the Persian līmūn, a generic term for citrus fruit, which is a cognate of Sanskrit (nimbū, “lime”).

Mandarin Orange

The mandarin orange (橘子 or 桔子; júzi), or mandarine, is a small citrus tree with fruit resembling other oranges.

The word mandarin was first recorded in Portuguese (mandarim). The word comes from Malay menteri or mantri and Sanskrit etymon mantri or mantrin- (counselor, minister), sharing the same origin with the word Man in English, Mantra (counsel) and the root Man- (Manu-) (to think, to know).

The OED explains that “the Sanskrit word was the usual term for a counsellor or minister of state in pre-Islamic India. It was widely adopted in South-East Asia, and especially in the Malay-speaking states”.

The Portuguese were the first to apply it to Chinese officials, instead of using the Chinese term “guan”.

Mandarin oranges
Mandarin oranges. Source: Wikimedia

Why the fruit is called in this way anyway?

The reason for the epithet “mandarin” is not clear, hypotheses ranging from the yellow color of some robes worn by mandarin dignitaries to the mandarin being an excellent kind of Chinese orange.

The name “mandarin orange” is first found in mandarin apelsin, (apelsin from German Apfelsine=Apfel+Sino means Chinese apple), first attested in 1771.

“J. R. FORSTER tr. P. Osbeck Voy. China I. 307 Here are two
sorts of China oranges (Citrus sinensis). The first is that called
the Mandarin-orange, whose peel is quite loose.”


The peach (Prunus persica) is a tree native to the region of Northwest China between the Tarim Basin and the north slopes of the Kunlun Shan mountains, where it was first domesticated and cultivated.

They have been cultivated as early as 6000 BC in Zhejiang Province of China. The oldest archaeological peach stones are from the Kuahuqiao site near Hangzhou.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo – Autumn, 1573, Musée du Louvre.

A significant sample of peach remains has been recovered from over 24 archaeological sites, most in the lower Yangzi valley, and two Jomon sites in Kyushu, Japan in contexts. The oldest peach stones are from Kuahuqiao (ca. 6000 BC).

Peach cultivation also went from China, through Persia, and reached Greece by 300 BC.

Alexander the Great introduced the fruit into Europe after he conquered the Persians.

Pliny the Elder mentioned many times peaches, probably introduced thirty years before the writing of his work Naturalis Historia (published in 77-78 AD).

In Roman times, peaches were pickled (preserved in vinegar) as indicated in the recipes.

Still Life with Peaches and Water Jar - House of the Stags - Herculaneum (45-79 d.C.)
Still Life with Peaches and Water Jar – House of the Stags – Herculaneum (45-79 d.C.)

Peach trees are portrayed in the wall paintings of Herculaneum, destroyed by the Vesuvius eruption of 79 AD, while the oldest known artistic representations of the fruit are in the two fragments of wall paintings, dated back to the first century AD.

The introduction of peaches into the Gallia province is reported to have occurred
particularly early and not through Italy, but through the Balkans.


The kiwifruit is native to the provinces of Hubei, Sichuan, Jiangxi, Fujian, and Zhejiang. The first recorded description of the kiwifruit dates back to the 12th century during the Song dynasty.

Although kiwifruit is a national fruit of China, until recently, China was not a major producing country of kiwifruit, as it was traditionally collected from the wild.

The first records of kiwifruit in Europe were the results of the voyages of European botanists traveling through China in the 1700s and 1800s.

Source: Wikimedia

They introduced the earliest samples of the kiwifruit vine to Europe. The plant was cultivated for an ornamental reason, rather than for edible consumption.

The fruit became popular with American servicemen stationed in New Zealand during World War II and later exported to California using the names “Chinese gooseberry” and “marionette”.

The name “kiwifruit” originated in New Zealand in 1962, to give it more market appeal.

In Italy, fruit cultivation began in 1970, growing to rank second in production behind China in 2014.

Persimmon – Khaki

The Diospyros khaki is a fruit tree native to East Asia and, it is one of the oldest man-made fruit plants known for its use in China for over 2,000 years.

In Chinese, the fruit is called 柿子 shìzi, while the tree is known as 柿子 树 shizishu.

Its first botanical description was published in 1780.

The scientific name comes from the combination of Greek words Διός Diòs (genitive of Zeus) and πυρός pyròs (wheat), literally “Zeus grain”.

The painting (1591) is Arcimboldo’s most famous work and is a portrait of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II re-imagined as Vertumnus, the Roman god of metamorphoses in nature and life; the fruits and vegetables symbolize the abundance of the Golden Age that has returned under the Emperor’s rule.

The fruit is defined by the Chinese as the tree of the seven virtues: it lives a long time, gives a great shadow, gives the birds the possibility of nesting among its branches, is not attacked by the plague, its yellow-red leaves in Autumn are decorative till the winter, the wood gives a nice fire, the fall of the abundant foliage provides rich fertilizing substances.

From China, it has extended to neighboring countries, such as Korea and Japan.

Around the middle of the nineteenth century, it was spread to America and Europe.


All forms of Asian rice sprang from a single domestication that occurred 8,200–13,500 years ago in China of the wild rice Oryza rufipogon.

Chinese legends attribute the domestication of rice to Shennong, the legendary emperor of China and inventor of Chinese agriculture.

In China rice is the gift of animals. Legend says after disastrous flooding all plants had been destroyed and no food was available. One day a dog ran through the fields to the people with rice seeds hanging from his tail. The people planted the seeds, rice grew and hunger disappeared.


The domestication of rice occurred in the Pearl River valley region of China.

Rice appears to have been used by the early Neolithic populations of Lijiacun and Yunchanyan.

From East Asia, rice was spread to Southeast and South Asia.

Rice was known to Greece by returning soldiers from Alexander the Great’s military expedition to Asia. Large deposits of rice from the first century AD have been found in Roman camps in Germany.

The Moors brought Asiatic rice to the Iberian Peninsula in the 10th century.

Rice fields in Yuanyang county, Yunnan province.

Muslims also brought rice to Sicily with cultivation starting in the 9th century, where it was an important crop long before it is noted in the plain of Pisa (1468) or in the Lombard plain (1475), where its cultivation was promoted by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, and demonstrated in his model farms.

Most of the rice used today in the cuisine of the Americas was introduced to Latin America and the Caribbean by European colonizers at an early date.

Spanish colonizers introduced Asian rice to Mexico in the 1520s at Veracruz, and the Portuguese introduced it at about the same time to colonial Brazil.

In 1694, rice arrived in South Carolina, probably originating from Madagascar.


The Chinese have consumed tea for thousands of years.

Tea originated in China during the Shang dynasty as a medicinal drink.

In Chinese legend, the story of tea begins with Emperor Shennong, inventor of agriculture and Chinese medicine. He was drinking a bowl of boiled water due to a decree that his subjects must boil water before drinking it, to preserve their health, when a few leaves were blown from a nearby tree into his water, changing the color.


A variant of the legend tells that the emperor tested the medical properties of various herbs on himself, some of them poisonous, and found tea to work as an antidote.

In another legend, dating back to the Tang Dynasty, Bodhidharma, the founder of Chan Buddhism, accidentally fell asleep after meditating in front of a wall for nine years. He woke up in such disgust at his weakness that he cut off his own eyelids. They fell to the ground and took root, growing into tea bushes.

Scholars, however, believe that tea drinking likely originated in the southwest of China and that the Chinese words for tea themselves may have been originally derived from the Austro-Asiatic languages of the people who originally inhabited that area.

Gaoxiang Ecological Tea Cultural Tour Area of Eshan
Gaoxiang Ecological Tea Cultural Tour Area of Eshan

The earliest physical evidence known to date, found in 2016, comes from the mausoleum of Emperor Jing of Han in Xi’an, indicating that tea was drunk by the Han Dynasty emperors as early as the 2nd century BC.

Mao Zedong teapot, 1965.

People of the Han Dynasty used tea as medicine.

The first known reference to boiling tea came from the Han dynasty work “The Contract for a Youth” written by Wang Bao where, among the tasks listed to be undertaken by the youth, “he shall boil tea and fill the utensils” and “he shall buy tea at Wuyang”.

From the Tang to the Qing dynasties, the first 360 leaves of tea grown here were picked each spring and presented to the emperor.

During the Sui Dynasty (589–618 AD) tea was introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks.

Tea was first introduced to Portuguese priests and merchants in China during the 16th century.

Anna Russell, duchess of Bedford
Anna Russell, duchess of Bedford. According to the tradition, the duchess created the afternoon tea tradition.

The earliest record of tea outside East Asia is said to be found in the statement of an Arabian traveler, that after the year 879 the main sources of revenue in Canton were the duties on salt and tea.

Marco Polo records the deposition of a Chinese minister of finance in 1285 for his arbitrary augmentation of the tea taxes.

In 1557, Portugal established a trading port in Macau and word of the Chinese drink “chá” spread quickly, but there is no mention of them bringing any samples home. In Portuguese the word “chá” still means tea.

In the early 17th century, a ship of the Dutch East India Company brought the first green tea leaves to Amsterdam from China.

Drinking tea became popular in Britain during the 17th century.

John Tenniel. The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, Illustration From ‘Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland’, by Lewis Carroll

In 1615, Richard Wickham, who ran an East India Company office in Japan, wrote in a letter to merchants in Macao requesting that they bring him “a pot of the best sort of chaw”.

Peter Mundy, a traveler and merchant who came across tea in Fujian, China in 1637, wrote, “Chaa — only water with a kind of herb boiled in it “.


Green tea exported from China was first introduced in the coffeehouses of London shortly before the Stuart Restoration (1660).

The British East India Company made its first order for the importation of tea in 1667 to their agent in Bantam, and two canisters of tea arrived from Bantam in 1669.

Tea-drinking spurred the search for a European imitation of Chinese porcelain, first successfully produced in England at the Chelsea porcelain manufactory, established around 1743-45 and quickly imitated.

Black tea overtook green tea in popularity in the 1720s when sugar and milk were added to tea, a practice that was not done in China.

Tea, Henry Matisse. 1919
Tea, Henry Matisse. 1919

White mulberry

The white mulberry is native to northern China.

The tree is widely cultivated to feed the silkworms employed in the commercial production of silk. Silk was first developed in ancient China.

The earliest example of silk has been found in tombs at the neolithic site Jiahu in Henan and is dating back 8,500 years.

Morus Alba fruits (White Mulberry)
Morus Alba fruits (White Mulberry)

Silk fabric from 3630 BC was used as wrapping the body of a child from a Yangshao culture site in Qingtaicun at Xingyang, Henan.

Silk is described in a chapter on mulberry planting by Si Shengzhi of the Western Han (206 BC – 9 AD).

Cocoon of silkworms (bombix mori). Source Wikimedia

Silks were originally reserved for the Emperors of China for their own use and gifts to others but spread gradually through Chinese culture and trade both geographically and socially, and then to many regions of Asia.

Because of its texture and luster, silk rapidly became a popular luxury fabric in the many areas accessible to Chinese merchants.

Women preparing silk, 12th century
Women preparing silk, 12th century. Cropped from a Song dynasty painting attributed to Emperor Huizong in the style of Tang dynasty painter Zhang Xuan.

Silk was in great demand and became a staple of pre-industrial international trade. In July 2007, archaeologists discovered intricately woven and dyed silk textiles in a tomb in Jiangxi province, dated to the Eastern Zhou Dynasty roughly 2,500 years ago.

The first evidence of the long-distance silk trade is the finding of silk in the hair of an Egyptian mummy of the 21st dynasty, c.1070 BC.

The silk trade reached as far as the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, Europe, and North Africa. This trade was so extensive that the major set of trade routes between Europe and Asia came to be known as the Silk Road.

The Emperors of China strove to keep knowledge of sericulture secret to maintain the Chinese monopoly.

The Roman Empire knew of and traded in silk, and Chinese silk was the most highly-priced luxury goods imported by them. The ancient Persians benefited economically from trade.

Despite the popularity of silk, the secret of silk-making only reached Europe around AD 550, via the Byzantine Empire. Legend has it that monks working for the emperor Justinian I smuggled silkworm eggs to Constantinople in hollow canes from China.

Italy was the most important producer of silk during the Medieval age.

From here, the production of silk spread around Italy and then Europe.

King James I introduced silk-growing to the American colonies around 1619, ostensibly to discourage tobacco planting.

Disputed: Apricot


  • Wikipedia
  • Encyclopedia of Cultivated Plants, From Acacia to Zinnia
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Topic: Chinese plants, plant culture

Last Updated on 2024/02/04

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