11 New World Crops that Columbus and Crew Had No Idea Existed

When Columbus first landed in the Caribbean, he stumbled upon people, cultures and, yep, these unfamiliar foods.

Columbus Monument, BarcelonaShutterstock / Joan Quevedo Fle
Shutterstock / Joan Quevedo Fle

It’s hard to imagine, but Christopher Columbus—an Italian—had never seen tomatoes. Why? Because they’re indigenous to the Americas. And tomatoes aren’t alone in this status. Several world-famous foods have their roots in the Western Hemisphere.

1. Blueberries

These little blue gems have been growing wild in North America since time immemorial, and Native Americans used them as food and medicine. Farmers and gardeners began cultivating blueberries only about 100 years ago. The trend caught on, and blueberries are now grown in 38 states and around the world.
Hungry for blueberries? Here’s what to cook now.

2. Chocolate

Made from the cacao pod, chocolate has been consumed as a beverage for most of its storied past—archaeologists working in Honduras recently discovered pottery shards covered with cacao residue dating back to 1400 BC. Back then, it was bitter and sometimes even fermented. People didn’t start sweetening chocolate until the conquistadors sampled it and had a rough time of it. Turns out cacao was once used as currency, too. Makes sense to us.
Hungry for chocolate? Get your chocolate fix here.

3. Corn

Remember how we said blueberries had been domesticated for only about a century? North American civilizations have been cultivating corn for 90 times that (quick math: 9,000 years). Plant geneticists believe people first bred maize—aka corn—in southern Mexico. Now corn products make up more than 20 percent of the world’s food.
Hungry for corn? Check out the corniest recipes we know.

4. Green Beans

Peruvian kids have been eating their green beans for more than 7,000 years. Beans passed from tribe to tribe, eventually spreading throughout the Americas. In some cultures, resourceful farmers planted corn and beans together, letting bean plants climb the cornstalks.
Hungry for green beans? Gobble ’em up!

5. Maple Syrup

Legend has it that a chief heading home from a hunt discovered this pancake make-or-breaker. He threw his tomahawk at a tree, and it stuck. Sugary sap began to drip from the crack. Native Americans in the northeastern U.S. and Canada taught settlers about maple syrup, and breakfast has never been the same.
Hungry for maple syrup? Learn more about it here.

6. Peppers

Bells, jalapenos, Hatch chilies, habaneros—they’re all descended from a pepper that first grew in South America, south of the Amazon. Not surprisingly, trading made peppers a hot commodity, first in the Americas and then around the world. Really, where would we be without Thai chilies?
Hungry for peppers? Everybody knows they’re best when stuffed.

7. Pineapples

Easy, right? Everybody knows pineapples come from Hawaii. Nope. Tribes from Brazil and Paraguay should really get the credit for introducing the world to this sweet, spiky herb (that’s right, technically an herb). Interestingly enough, pineapples didn’t take off in Hawaii until 1885, almost 400 years after Columbus and crew encountered it on the island of Guadeloupe.
Hungry for pineapple? Try grilling it!

8. Potatoes

Incas began cultivating these tubers in their Peruvian homeland many thousands of years ago. When the conquistadors arrived in the mid-16th century, they brought the spuds back to Europe. Within 100 years, potatoes were on tables around the world. They’ve become the fourth largest food crop because they’re so easy to grow. (Not to be confused with potatoes—or yams, for that matter—sweet potatoes are among New World crops, too.)
Hungry for potatoes? We’ve got 80 ways to eat them.

9. Squash

If the story of Cinderella was around before European explorers set foot here, she must have ridden in something else: Pumpkins hail from Central America, along with all other winter and summer squashes. Squash was one of the first widely cultivated food sources among Native Americans, even before corn and beans.
Hungry for squash? Cook your way through our top 10 list.

10. Tomatoes

It’s hard to believe, but you couldn’t always find red sauce in Italy. In fact, soon after tomatoes were brought to Europe from Central America in the mid-16th century, they had to beat a pretty bad rap as being poisonous—yes, killer tomatoes were a thing. (Turns out lead in the pewter plates was really to blame.) Eventually farmers and chefs saw the light and the nickname “love apple” was born.
Hungry for tomatoes? There’s nothing quite like this fresh, juicy fruit.

11. Vanilla

Money doesn’t grow on trees, but vanilla beans do. This member of the orchid family grows wild in trees throughout the Americas and the Caribbean, but the Totonacs of eastern Mexico get props as vanilla’s first cultivators. Every culture that has learned to grow vanilla has prized it highly, and it’s still one of the most expensive ingredients in the world.
Hungry for vanilla? Make your own vanilla extract.

Where would we be without these native American ingredients? It makes us wonder if there are still others yet to be discovered and shared. Until then, we’ll be happy with eating stuffed peppers, green beans and corn bread with chocolate pudding for dessert.

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Ellie Martin Cliffe
Now an executive editor at Taste of Home, Ellie has been writing about food and parenting for more than a decade. When she isn't at TOH HQ, she's likely trying gluten- and dairy-free recipes, canning whatever's in season, listening to anything with a fiddle, or playing Uno with her family.