Genebanks: Treasure Houses of Uncommon
One day your dinner plate may be filled with bright, speckled beans,
licorice-flavored avocado slices, and spicy pickled cabbage. A Halloween trick?
No, a tasty treat.
These and many other exciting foods are popular in other countriesand
could one day be palate pleasers here. Some fruits and vegetables, like kiwi
and bok choy, are loaded with important nutrients and already have a home on
In fact, while some berries and nuts are U.S. natives, most of the foods we
eat originated in foreign lands. As people migrated to the United States, they
often brought seeds of their favorite crops.
"Our diet is limited only by our imagination," says Henry L.
Shands, ARS associate deputy administrator for genetic resources in Beltsville,
Maryland. "Up to 5,000 plant species have been used for food, although
today most of the world relies on less than 200.
"Each food crop species has hundreds of wild and cultivated relatives
with potentially important genetic differences," he says. "These
relatives could be used to develop flavorful new U.S. crops. Or, they may hold
the keys to pest resistance or other improvements in existing crops."
Scientists at 21 ARS facilities and land-grant institutions carefully store
seeds and other plant partsknown as germplasmthat can be grown into
These germplasm repositories, or genebanks, are located across the country
to provide the best growing conditions for the crops they store, like berries
in Oregon and tropical fruits in Hawaii and Florida [list of
As a backup, duplicate germplasm samples from each repository are sent to
ARS' long-term storage facility in Fort Collins, Colorado. There, scientists
develop techniques such as freezing in liquid nitrogen to preserve the
Germplasm from ARS collections is available to plant breeders and scientists
worldwide. Altogether, the various collections in the National Plant Germplasm
System ship nearly 150,000 items (packages of seeds and other plant materials)
to users in the United States and in over 100 foreign countries each year.
Pictured here are a few interesting fruits, vegetables, and other foods that
have large foreign, but only small U.S., marketsso far. ARS scientists
came across these "uncommon" foods in their quest to preserve as much
of the world's natural plant diversity as possible. Maybe one day some of them
will show up as new foods at your dinner table. By Kathryn Barry
Stelljes, ARS; Marcia Wood, Ben Hardin, and Dennis
Senft, ARS; contributed to this article.
For more information on the National Plant Germplasm System, contact
L. Shands, USDA-ARS
Center For Genetic Resources Preservation, 1111 S. Mason, Fort Collins, CO,
80521-4500; phone (970) 495-3221, fax (970) 221-1427.
A Sampling of Fruits and Vegetables From U.S. Plant Repositories
Beans - Lentils, peas, beans, and other legumes are staple foods worldwide.
One of the earliest cultivated crops, lentils make creamy soups eaten in North
Africa and Eurasia. One cup of beanslike fava beans in Africa and the
Middle East, and tarwi, lupini, and tepary beans in Latin Americaprovides
a third of an adult's daily requirement of protein. Legumes are also popular as
snacks and spices. In Mexico, tender shoots from scarlet runner beans are
dipped in batter and fried. Nuñas from the Peruvian Andes are popped
like corn. Fenugreek seeds enhance curry spices, vanilla flavorings, and
Gooseberries - Competitions for the largest gooseberry have been held in
England for over 100 yearsthe largest berry on record reaching the size
of a small apple. Native to North Africa and the northeastern United States,
gooseberries, Ribes grossularia, are similar to currants. They are
enjoyed raw, in preserves, and as a pie filling.
Tomatillo - Like the tomato, the tomatillo, Physalis sp., ripens into
a sweet fruit. But in its native Mexico, it is preferred green and slightly
underripe as the basis for a spicy salsa.
Chinese leafy vegetables - Most oriental leafy greens, like bok-choy,
Brassica rapa subsp. chinensis, come from China, but they are eaten
regularly across the Pacific Rim. They are stir-fried, fermented, or pickled.
Kim chee is a favorite Korean side dish made with pickled cabbages, radishes,
garlic, and hot pepper. Related to broccoli and cabbage, all oriental leafy
greens are high in vitamins A and C, iron and other minerals, and fiber. They
may have an important role in preventing some kinds of cancer.
Kiwi - Originally known as yang tao or Chinese gooseberry, this tangy green
fruit originated in China. In the 1960's, New Zealanders renamed the brown,
fuzzy-skinned fruit after their national symbol, a native flightless bird. The
fruit is eaten alone, in salads, and as a condiment on ice cream and pastries.
Kiwi, Actinidia deliciosa, can also be used to tenderize meat. Each
fruit has more vitamin C than a large orange.
Cherimoya, soursop, and sugar apple Sweet dessert fruits from
tropical America are enjoyed fresh or made into sherbet. Andean cherimoyas
combine pineapple and banana flavors. With a taste like pineapple and mango,
soursops are made into a refreshing Cuban drink. The white, custardlike flesh
of the sugar apple is a favorite in India.
Wampee - These Chinese fruits are distantly related to kumquats and other
citrus. The wampee, Clausena lansium, bears mostly sour fruit in clumps
and is eaten fresh.
Pummelo - Grapefruits may have been developed from these larger, sweeter
relatives. Some varieties in their native Southeast Asia have green skin and
flesh. Improved U.S. cultivars have fewer seeds, thinner rinds, and may be red
fleshed. All pummelos, Citrus grandis, are eaten fresh or juiced.
Papaya - This crunchy and green fruit is best known in green papaya salad
with fish sauce, a popular Thai dish. When ripe and salmon-red, it is good just
plain or in juice, and it is rich in vitamins A and C. Papaya cultivars from
Thailand are about five times larger than typical supermarket varieties from
Hawaii. Papayas, Carica papaya, contain the enzyme papain, which is used
to make meat tenderizers.
The National Plant Germplasm System
The National Plant Germplasm System, coordinated by ARS, maintains about
450,000 accessions of plant material, including food, feed, and natural fiber
crops and ornamentals. Information about holdings in the germplasm system can
be obtained from the World Wide Web at http://www.ars-grin.gov/.
International plant exchange, quarantine, and the Germplasm Resources
Information Network (GRIN) are coordinated by the USDA-ARS
Germplasm Resources Laboratory, Rm. 102, Bldg. 003, BARC-West, 10300
Baltimore Blvd., Beltsville, MD 20705-2350; phone (301) 504-6235.
Preserving the U.S. base collection of plant germplasm and serving as the
long-term backup site for all accessions is the USDA-ARS
Center for Genetic Resources Preservation, 1111 South Mason St., Fort
Collins, CO 80521-4500; phone (970) 495-3226, fax (970) 221-1427.
Repositories and Their
University of California , Davis, CA 95616- 8607; (530) 752-7009
Almond, apricot, cherry, fig, grape (warm season), kiwi, nectarine, olive,
peach, pistachio, plum, pomegranate, walnut
Germplasm Repository for Citrus and Dates
1060 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Riverside, CA 92507
(951) 827-4399 Date, grapefruit, lemon
USDA-ARS Plant Genetic Resources Unit
Geneva, NY 14456-0462
(315) 787-2244 Apple, broccoli, brussels sprout, cabbage,
cauliflower, celery, collard, grape (cool season), onion, pumpkin, radish,
USDA-ARS Tobacco Collection
North Carolina State University
901 Hillboro St.
Oxford, NC 17565
(919) 693-5151 Tobacco
U.S. National Arboretum
3501 New York Avenue N.E.
Washington, DC 20002
(202) 245-4539 Ornamental trees and shrubs
USDA-ARS National Germplasm Repository
13601 Old Cutler Road
Miami, FL 33158
(305) 254-3643 Avocado, jujube, mango, palm, sugar-cane, tropical fig
ARS Southern Regional Plant Introduction Station
1109 Experiment St, Griffin, GA 30223-1797
(770) 228-7254 Cowpea, eggplant, mung-bean, okra, peanut, pepper,
sesame, sorghum, sweet potato, watermelon
USDA-ARS Northern Crop Science Research Laboratory
1307 N. 18th Street
Fargo, ND 58105
(701) 237-8155 Flax
33447 Peoria Rd.
Corvallis, OR 97333- 2521
(541) 738-4201 Blackberry, blue-berry, currant, filbert, hop, mint,
pear, raspberry, strawberry
Agricultural Research Station
2200 Pedro Albizu Campos Ave.
Mayaguez, PR 00681-0070
(787) 831-3435 Banana, Brazil nut, cassava, cocoa, plantain, yam
USDA-ARS National Germplasm Repository,
PO Box 4487, Hilo, HI 96720
(808) 959-5833 Breadfruit, carambola, guava, lychee, macadamia nut,
papaya, passion fruit, pineapple, rambutan
Small Grains Collection
1691 S. 2700 W., Aberdeen, ID 83210
(208) 397-4162 Barley, oat, rice, rye, wheat
ARS Maize Genetic Cooperation
1102 South Goodwin Ave.
University of Illinois
Urbana, IL 61801
(217) 333-6631 Maize
USDA-ARS National Soybean
1101 West Peabody Ave.
Urbana, IL 61801
(217) 244-4346 Soybean
Germplasm Research Unit
2765 F&B Road
College Station, TX 77845
(979) 260-9311 Cotton
USDA-ARS Pecan Breeding and Genetics
Rte. 2, Box 133.
Somerville, TX 77879
(409) 272-1402 Pecan
Regional Plant Introduction Station
Washington State University
Pullman, WA 99164-6402
(509) 335-3683 Bean, chickpea, forage and range grasses, garlic,
leek, lettuce, pea, sugarbeet
Central Regional Plant Introduction Station
Iowa State University
Ames, IA 50011
(515) 294-7967 Amaranth, asparagus, cantaloupe, carrot, corn,
cucumber, sunflower, sweet clover
University of Kentucky
Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station
Lexington, KY 40546-0091
(859) 257-5785 - Clover
ARS Potato Germplasm
4312 Hwy 42
Sturgeon Bay, Wl 54235
(920) 743-5406 Potato
"Genebanks: Treasure Houses of Uncommon Foods"
was published in the October 1995 issue of
Agricultural Research magazine.