Which plants changed history?

In this thread about the Roman Empire, **Constanze **said

What are the other four plants that changed history? Or more generally: which plants changed history?

(I’ve no idea what forum this should go in. Is it factual? Is it debatable? Is it just an opinion? Mods: please move if necessary.)

I think the five in that list are probably sugar cane, tea, cotton, potatoes and quinine, but you could make an argument for several others such as rice, wheat, tobacco, coffee, chocolate and a mixed bag of spices such as nutmeg, pepper and cinnamon.

5 plants?

I guess that all plants that were breed when agriculture started should be in the list : wheat, millet, rice, corn, obviously, but also buckwheat, barley, etc…
Whatever the list could be, it has to be arbitrary. I’d guess they’d include barley because of beer, potatoes because it had a huge impact, on agricultural practice in Europe, but I can’t see any obvious way to tell that, say, cultivating casava had more or less impact that growing whatever tree is favored by the silk worm or than tea.

if you say "changed history, " that’s a tough question. quinine may have been discovered from cinchona (sp?) and it speeded up exploration and colonization of africa. but you’ll ask “did it matter ultimately?”

the others, the spice and silk trade, the evolution of sweeteners, chocolate, tobacco, cotton, etc. it’s hard to value their respective impacts (at least to a non-historian like me.)

NB: the five I listed first are from a list in some published work, which I assume were accompanied by details of why they made the top 5, but I’m sure those 5 are quite an arbitrary selection.

I assumed it was a reference to this book, which was pretty popular when it first came out, iirc.

(They are quinine, sugar, tea, cotton, and the potato. A sixth, cocoa, was added in later editions)

I think tea and coffee should be on the list, since they gave people in Europe something besides beer and wine to drink and helped jump start the industrial revolution.

One might consider Penicillium, if one is willing to push the definition of “plant” a little bit.

Yes, it was a reference to a book, but the title of the book was “5 plants that changed the world”. (Maybe it was this book after all - it was a pocket book ed. and might have been translated) They meant in terms of these plants leading indirectly to war or political changes.
IIRC, the plants were (not in order of importance)

  1. Tea - the whole difficulty of China only wanting to trade tea for silver lead to considerable political changes in England, (Opium War), as well as the American colony and tea tax. And once tea plants had been smuggled out of China, the English occupied India to grow it there.

  2. Cotton - required slaves, which had a huge impact on US society

  3. Sugar cane - a part of the slave triangle in the form of Rum, had a big impact on trade (the huge volume of it)

  4. and 5) … can’t remember at the moment. Coffee would be a good contender, as would probably be rubber until the invention of artifical rubber.
    Potato did have a huge effect not only on Ireland and the exodus during the famine, but also allowing Prussia and other countries to grow their population.
    Quinine did allow treatment of malaria which had a huge impact in Asia.

Maize. It might have retarded agricultural and technological development in pre-Columbian America.

No love for either Papaver somniferum or Erythroxylum coca? Without 'em, you’d have to rename the Opium Wars, for one thing.

How about Hevea brasiliensis? Though I’m not sure how much history would have changed if there was no rubber.

Other contenders: Cocaine, opium.

ETA: Damn! beaten by a minute!

If you’re going to go there, I think we also need to include Saccharomyces

IIRC fungi are actually genetically closer to animals than to plants.

In what way? I always understood the problem to be the opposite; maize was much harder to domesticate than plants like wheat or oats. That deprived the region of a crop that could be grown to sustain a civilization for much longer than would have happened with a more tractable crop, delaying their advancement drastically due to the lack of alternatives.

Unfortunately, it’s a fungus.

I’d think that tobacco is going to be one of them. It had enormous effects on medicine, commerce, and law all over the world.

What about willow? A Greek preparation made from it was an early analgesic, and Aspirin is a slightly modified version of the molecule that can be obtained from a reaction from the original chemical.

Obviously, grapes. Life wouldn’t be worth living without wine!

I’ll second that!

But what about rice? Isn’t a vast portion of the world dependent on it?

As I understand it, maize is easier to plant, in a wider variety of conditions, has less maintenance issues, and is easier to collect with it’s nice big ears. This may have stopped the further domestication of other plants, and the technology necessary to take advantage of them. Maybe I’ve got that wrong though. The initial domestication may have been more difficult, but it apparently produced an ideal product.

But the earlier, wilder forms of maize did not have “nice big ears”.

Indeed, it’s hard to take any list seriously which excludes what is currently the most important food source for our species.