Botanical Backgrounds &

Vavilov’s Centers of Diversity

I have long been fascinated with the origins of our domesticated plants and particularly how the global centers of crop diversity identified by Nicolay Ivanovich Vavilov mirror the biodiversity hotspots identified by Conservation International (See Maps below).  While Vavilov was specifically concerned with discoving new food plants that may help people avert famine, deeper consideration of the implications of this work with regards to preserving cultural and biological diversity through supporting and advocating traditional, regenerative agriculture is obvious.  More total plant biodiversity results in more choices of food plant, and more agro-biodiversity stewards by extension – it’s a direct correlation. 

“We may well consider Vavilov to be the 'Darwin of the 20th century' with just as enquiring a mind and capacity to recognize the basic similarities between several apparently quite distinct phenomena as Darwin had done in the 19th century. Vavilov noted in his work, The Phytogeographical Basis for Plant Breeding (Vavilov 1935), that the centers of origin of cultivated plants occurred mostly in mountainous regions between the Tropic of Capricorn (23°28') south of the equator and about 45°N of the equator in the Old World. In the New World crop domestication occurred between the two tropics (Cancer and Capricorn) approximately. In all cases agricultural origins and primitive diversity occurred in high and complex mountain regions. Why only these?”[1], J.G. Hawkes.

Further, I’d like us to consider that a certain narrative of xenophobia and racial intolerance has unfortunately taken hold in some circles and how not only uncompassionate it is, but completely overlooks the fact that immigrants have greatly enriched our global food traditions and diversity everywhere on the planet.  Ironically, it is of note that the USA and Canada are not on the list of centers of Agri Biodiversity.  May we learn our Botanical Backgrounds and celebrate those regions of the Earth and the peoples who stewarded wild plants for millennia to the point that they are the familiar foods that we treasure at every meal.  Look out for a few showcases species in Botanical Background sidebars throughout this catalog and may we learn to celebrate the cultures that have contributed so much to the abundance in our lives.  Thank you.

Region (#s on Map Below



Common Agricultural Crops

1) Central America

Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica


Corn, Beans, Squash, Tomatoes, Peppers, Sweet Potatoes, Amaranth, Lima Bean

2) South America

Brazil, Chile, Andes, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru


Potatoes, Pumpkins, Cocoa, Tobacco, Hot peppers, Rubber, Cashew, Ground cherry, Peanut, Cassava

3) Mediterranean

Countries that border the Mediterranean


Beets, Celery, Cabbage, Turnip, Lettuce, Asparagus, Chickory, Parsnip, Rhubarb, Peas, Flax, Olives, Durum Wheat, Oats, Clover

4) Persian Center

Iran, Asia Minor, Turkmenistan


Lentils, Pears, Figs, Einkorn Wheat, Barley, Rye, Alfalfa, Cherry

5) Abyssinian



Hard Wheat, Emmer, Barley, Pearl Millet, Cowpea, Flax, Teff, Sesame, Cress, Coffee, Okra, Grain sorghum, Castor bean, Indigo

6) Central Asia

NW India, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Tian Shan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan


Onion, Garlic, Spinach, Carrot, Pistachio, Pear, Almond, Grape, Apple, Wheat, Peas, Lentils, Mustard, Flax, Hemp, Cotton, Lentils, Sesame

7) Indo-Burma

India, Assam, Burma


Eggplant, Cucumber, Radish, Taro, Rice, Mango, Orange, Black Pepper, Cinnamon, Safflower, Chickpea, Yam, Hemp, Bamboo, Sugar cane, Mango, Bamboo, Basil

7A) Siam-Malay- Java

Indo-China, Malay Archipelago


Banana, Sugar cane, Cloves, Nutmeg, Coconut, Black Pepper, Breadfruit

8) China



Onion, Cucumber, Chinese Cabbage, Buckwheat, Japanese Millet, Broom Corn, Hulless Barley, Soybeans, Adzuki Beans, Peach, Apricot, Cherry, Walnut, Asian Pears, Opium Poppy, Yams, Hemp

                                                            [2]                                                                       [3]



  • Corn – Central America. Corn or Maize (Zea Mays) originated in the Balsas river valley of South Eastern Mexico an estimated 7,000 years ago.  Its wild ancestor is an annual grass called Teosinte (Zea Mexicana), whose sparse kernals are about 1/8” long, are not born on a cob and have a very hard shell.  Corn is thought to have begun as what is known as the “flint” types that have a hard seed coat and are generally used for grits, hominy, polenta and such.  Popcorn is a flint corn. From this the softer “flour” types were developed. Much later sweet corns were domesticated.  Even later (1846 in the USA) “dent” corn was created from a cross between  flour and sweet corns and bred for high starch content.  Dent corn is the most common type of field corn grown around the world. 


  • Chili Peppers – South America. Chilies ( Capsicum spp.) actually had multiple centers of origin with the most common ones (Capsicum annum – bell, Cayenne, jalepeño types) being South central Mexico, however Peru is considered the global chili capital on account of a total of 5 species of chilies that have been domesticated and in common use (including eximium, C. cardenasii, C. eshbaughii, C. caballeroi & C. baccatum). The myriad of micro climates throughout the Andes mountains is thought to have contributed to this diversity.  Chilies acquired the name “pepper” after early colonizers had no reference for the spicy fruit and chose to name it after black peppercorns. 
  • Beets – Mediterranean. The countries bordering the Mediterranean sea afforded many micro climates such as coastal cliffs and stony beaches that the wild ancestor of table beets (and Swiss Chard as they are botanically quite similar – Beta vulgaris).  A widely adaptable plant that can range in form from table beets, to larger fodder / sugar beets also known as mangrels, and a leafy vegetable – Swiss Chard.  Throughout medieval Europe fodder beets played a very important role as a winter feed for livestock, particularly, dairy cattle.  Fodder beets were the ancestor of sugar beets which are now one of the most important agricultural crops on the planet.  It is estimated that 55% of the sugar produced in the USA comes from sugar beets.
  • Barley – Persia. One of the earliest domesticated crops, there is evidence of barley (Hordeum vulgare) being grown in the Middle East over 10,000 years ago. It was thought to have been domesticated about the same time as wheat.  There is not consensus on the exact place of origin for Barley and some botanists believe that there may have been diferent places it was domesticated including Egypt, Ethiopia, the Near East or Tibet, however a wild relative (Hordeum spontaneum) still grows wild in the Middle East.  First varieties were 2-row types and later, around 6,000 BCE, the 6-row types emerged.  In ancient Egypt (3200 BC to 30 BC), Barley was the primary staple for bread and beer making and legend has it that the slaves who built the pyramids were provided ample barley based beer.  Today Barley ranks as the the forth most cultivated grain after corn, wheat and rice
  • Wheat – Ethiopia. Wheat (Triticum aestivum) was clearly a defining moment in the advent of agricultural civilization.  Few people are aware that Durum wheat (hard pasta wheat) and Emmer (an ancient ancestor ot modern wheat) were domesticated from a wild ancestor in the region of Ethiopia.  There is archeological evidence that Durum wheat has been cultivated in Ethipoia’s rift vally for 15,000 years (!!!), which predates the development of agriculture in the fertile crescent by 3,000 years.  The other region where Einkorn wheat was thought to have been domesticated was in Syria.  Wheat is grown on more crop land than any other crop in the world.  I find it tragic that these two regions that were literally the cradle of civilization are experiencing so much turmoil now.  My hope in shining a light to where our food comes from is that may perhaps we can ease this suffering and appreciate these peoples important contributions historically and now.
  • Carrots – Central Asia. Originating in the northern India/Afghanistan/Iran area, carrots were originally grown for their greens and aromatic seeds which were used for seasoning and medicinal purposes.  Carrot (Dacus carrota) is a member of the Apiaceae plant family which has many other species high in aromatic volatile oils such as cumin, coriander, parsley, celery, lovage, dill and fennel.  Later they were domesticated for an enlarged root that was purple for most of its early history.  The Moors introduced carrots (along with polyrhythmic music, architectire, aquaducts and so much more) into Spain in the 8th  Orange carrots didn’t commonly exist until they were selected for that color in the Netherlands in the 17th century. Nearly half of the estimated 37 tons of carrots grown yearly are grown in China!
  • Cucumber – India. Domesticated over 4,000 years ago in India and then it quickly spread through southern Asia.  It wasn’t until about 1,000 BCE that cucumbers (Cucumis sativum) spread more widely, most likely influenced by the Roman empire which fondly embraced it.  In fact the most famous example of cucumbers fascination in Ancient Rome came during the short reign of Emperor Tiberius (14 – 16 AD) who demanded to eat cucumber on every day of the year. During summer special gardens were tended just for his vegetables, and in winter cucumber was grown on moveable bed frames that were moved to be exposed to the sun, or illuminated with the mirror-stones.  In 2010 there were 57 million tons of cucumbers grown with 70% of those grown in China.
  • Onion – China. The ancient Chinese seemed to have exercised the most creativity in domesticated more species into cultivation than in any other region of the world.  (138 species of 665 important crops = 20%!).  The first archeological evidence of onions was from Bronze age settlements in China over 6,000 years ago.  They spread West through Persia and into Egypt where they were revered as both food and medicine.  In fact, Onions were used in Egyptian burials, as evidenced by onion traces found in the eye sockets of Ramesses IV.  There are many wild forms of onions all over the planet, as evidenced by the diversity of walking, bulbing and scallion types.  However the common onion (Alium cepa) is the most widely grown with over 88 million tons grown in 2014 and half of that in India and China. 

- Don Tipping,

January, 2018



[1] Back to Vavilov: Why Were Plants Domesticated in Some Areas and Not in Others? - J.G. Hawkes

[2] Agro – Biodiversity Map – Wikipedia, “Centers of Origin”

[3] Biodiversity Hotspot Map – Conservation International, 2005