Turkey is the headline-grabbing star of most Thanksgiving meals. But plants are the real heavy-lifting heroes. From savory seasonings to sweet desserts, almost every dish on the dinner table will have at least one botanical ingredient. Whether you are preparing the food or just enjoying it this Thanksgiving, give thanks to the plants making this meal more delicious.
#Plantsgiving is a campaign cooked up by botanist Chris Martine, a biology professor at Bucknell University. He’s encouraging everyone to see just how many species of plants find their way to the Thanksgiving table. The winning dinner in 2019, hosted by Mike Barker of the University of Arizona, boasted a whopping 122 species representing 52 plant families.
So as you fire up the ovens, fire up your curiosity, too, and take stock of just how important plants are to your own Thanksgiving tradition. The results might surprise you.
Meeting the Families
If you’re not a botanist, thinking about families other than your own can feel a bit daunting, let alone genera and species. So if you’re new to the #PlantsGiving challenge, here are a few plant families commonly featured in a Thanksgiving feast.
Herbs will take a big bite out of your species count for the day—everything from rosemary to thyme, oregano to sage. The good news here is they are all in the same plant family, Lamiaceae. Also known as the mint family, a large number of culinary herbs are categorized here.
If you’re using any pre-mixed spice blends such as poultry seasoning, check the ingredient list. You’ll likely add six or more plant species, many of which are likely Lamiaceae.
Read More—Herbs A to Z
Another plant family likely to make more than one appearance at the table is Solanaceae. This family includes edible staples like tomato, bell pepper, and eggplant. The species Solanum tuberosum is the star of several Thanksgiving side dishes like mashed potatoes or potato casserole—as is its botanical cousin, Ipomoea batatas, the sweet potato.
Solanaceae also gives us common spices like paprika, crushed red pepper, and cayenne pepper. Despite the notably different flavor profiles, each of those spices comes from the same species, Capsicum annuum.
This plant family gives us the culinary backbone of many dishes—onions and garlic. These two species, along with leeks, chives, scallions, and shallots, are all in the genus Allium within the Amaryllidaceae family.
Another plant family likely represented on your table is Apiaceae. It includes carrots and parsnips, along with celery, dill, and parsley. Seeds of some species in this family are also used in cooking—such as fennel, cumin, caraway, and coriander.
You can thank a member of the grass family, Poaceae, for that warm, buttery roll on the Thanksgiving table. One of the most economically important plant families in the world gives us corn, wheat, and rice. Washing your food down with a beer? The malted barley used to make it is also a member of this family. Another prominent member of the grass family is likely present in a number of your sweet treats—most commercial sugar comes from Saccharum officinarum or sugar cane.
Don’t forget about dessert! Pumpkin pie wouldn’t exist without its star ingredient, Cucurbita pepo. Having been domesticated in the New World for thousands of years, this versatile single species gives us more than just pumpkin, but also summer squash, acorn squash, and zucchini. Other members of the family include cucumber and watermelon.
Feeling overwhelmed with botanical names? Here’s a quick guide to 20 plants commonly used in cooking and their scientific names. There’s a good chance you can add a majority of these to your #PlantsGiving list before the food is even out of the oven.
|Common Name||Species Name||Family||Common Name||Species Name||Family|
|Apple||Malus domestica||Rosaceae||Parsley||Petroselinum crispum||Apiaceae|
|Black pepper||Piper nigrum||Piperaceae||Pecan||Carya illinoinensis||Juglandaceae|
|Broccoli||Brassica oleracea||Brassicaceae||Potato||Solanum tuberosum||Solanceae|
|Carrot||Daucus carota||Apiaceae||Pumpkin||Cucurbita pepo||Cucurbitaceae|
|Corn||Zea mays||Poaceae||Rosemary||Salvia rosmarinus||Lamiaceae|
|Cranberry||Vaccinium macrocarpon||Ericaceae||Sage||Sativa officinalis||Lamiaceae|
|Garlic||Allium sativum||Amaryllidaceae||Sweet potato||Ipomoea batatas||Solanaceae|
|Green beans||Phaseolus vulgaris||Fabaceae||Tomato||Solanum lycopersicum||Solanaceae|
|Onion||Allium cepa||Amaryllidaceae||Thyme||Thymus vulgaris||Lamiaceae|
|Oregano||Origanum vulgare||Lamiaceae||Wheat||Triticum aestivum||Poaceae|
Fun with Food
While you watch your species count fill up faster than your stomach for #PlantsGiving, there is more you can consider. Research Specialist Ashley Glenn studies plants and food for the Garden’s William L. Brown Center. She says Thanksgiving is particularly interesting because of where most of the food comes from.
“Usually when I talk about food diversity with people, it’s super fun to look at origins,” says Glenn. “This is especially fun for Thanksgiving because of the high status of native North American and New World foods like pumpkin, turkey, cranberry, yam, potato, pecan, etc. I think it’s a bit amazing that after all these generations of immigrants, we still celebrate these native foods without really highlighting that they are native.”
As someone who studies food for a living, Glenn has also tasted her fair share of not-quite-so-traditional Thanksgiving dishes. For instance, her Sicilian-American family stuffs their turkey with a wild rice salsiccia stuffing.
Glenn points out that everyone brings a bit of their own personal and cultural interpretations to the dinner table on Thanksgiving, especially when it comes to side dishes. “I’ve been to a Thanksgiving with Thai immigrant families where they serve turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and an array of Thai special foods; and a Bosnian thanksgiving with a Mediterranean shopska salad,” she says.
Thanksgiving is, of course, just one of roughly one thousand meals you’ll eat over the course of a year. And just about every one will have at least one plant in it. Paying a little more attention to the ingredients in your food and where they came from can give you a deeper appreciation of not only what you’re eating, but how important plants really are to supporting life on this planet.
Senior Digital Media Specialist