It may be time to re-write vegetable history. In a paper published this week in Science, scientists revealed that nightshades are about a dozen million years older than originally thought. That means that these little guys have been around for 52 million years. Nightshades are vegetables like potatoes, tomatoes, chili and bell peppers, tobacco and eggplant.
In fact, they even have a medicinal purpose as deadly nightshades are used to produce the medicine atropine.
Ancient Nightshades Discovered in Argentina.
Peter Wilf, a paleobotanist at Penn State University and the lead author of the Science paper, recently discovered two new tomatillo fossils in Patagonia. Each about the size of a pen cap. These fossilized imprints were remarkable due to the high quality of their lakebed preservation.
To everyone’s surprise, the spidery outline of its papery husk were still distinctly visible against the white volcanic rock.
This chance unearthing of an ancient tomatillo has changed humankind’s understanding of nightshades. It has been known for decades that tomatoes and their tangy cousin the tomatillo were late bloomers within the species.
That means, since tomatillos evolved so late, that this fruit’s great-great-great ancestors likely developed millions of years prior. Maybe even back when dinosaurs roamed the earth!
The Whole Nightshade Evolution Timeline is Altered.
What makes this development so fascinating are the underlying assumptions about the adaptability of nightshades that can now be made.
If these plants were being fossilized as long as 52 million years ago, that means they would have had to withstand the tumultuous climate change that occurred during this period.
Around this time, Earth cooled off dramatically and the species that had adapted to the warm tropical climates of South America had to evolve — quickly.
However, the hearty tomatillo, it seems, survived and thrived in this new world earning it the name infinemundi or “at the end of the world.”
Try A Tomatillo
Thank goodness these guys survived the end of the world. If they hadn’t we wouldn’t know the joy of salsa verde and tomatillo chicken enchiladas.
And what would the world be without that?
Are you in the mood to try tomatillos now?
Try making your very own salsa verde with this recipe here.