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What is a vegetable?

Vegetables form a familiar use group which is quite uneasy to define. We can distinguish two points of view, commercial or culinary, and modes of production.

From a culinary (and nutritional) point of view, vegetables include various plant organs which are rich in water, fibers, vitamins and minerals. They are often eaten raw in salad, or cooked as a side-dish with a main dish (a staple or a meat), often with addition of salt. They are often boiled together in a pot (hence English: potherbs; French: plantes potagères) and mashed into purée or soup (hence German: Gemüse).

As far as modes of production are concerned, most vegetables are herbaceous plants grown in gardens with intensive methods. Even if now commercial productions are mostly done in open fields, they are usually irrigated and fertilized. Cultivation in gardens is a branch of horticulture, and is the origin of several names : French: plantes maraîchères, plantes potagères; Portuguese: hortaliça; Catalan: hortalissa; Italian: ortaggio, Occitan: ortalha.

Plant groups usually included in vegetables

They are variously called plantes condimentaires, plantes aromatiques or fines herbes in French. They are usually cultivated as vegetables, but differ in their strong flavour, and above all in the limited quantities used in cuisine. They are included in vegetables as far as they are used fresh. Once dry, they may be considered as condiments or spices. This situation varies from one country to the other and from one cultivar group to the other. Leafy celery is a condiment, whereas celery is a vegetable. Hot pepper is a condiment or a spice, whereas sweet pepper is a vegetable.

Edible mushrooms are considered as vegetables, although they are grown in caves or greenhouses or gathere in the wild, and although they do not belong to the Plantae kingdom.

Several languages such as French (légumes secs) tend to include them in vegetables. But they contain a small amount of water and a big amount of proteins. From a nutritional point of view, they form a separate use group.

Starchy roots and tubers are rich in starch or inuline and relatively poor in water. Although they are often considered as vegetables, they form a distinct use group from a nutritional point of view.

They are of limited importance in temperate countries, more so in Mediterranean areas and even more in tropical areas, where we can find all intermediate statuses between wild, tolerated weed, favored weed, and cultivated.

Some algae are considered as vegetables, and others as additives.

Classification of vegetables

They are usually classified according to the type of organ which is eaten.

  • leafy vegetables

cabbage, spinach, leek. Salads are a particular sub-group of leafy vegetables, and are mostly eaten raw. Among leafy vegetables, those having dark green leaves have a great nutritional importance due to their foliar proteins.

  • root vegetables

carrot, turnip, radish, beetroot

  • bulb vegetables

onion, shallot, garlic. This category is rarely used, in favor of Alliaceae.

  • stem vegetables

asparagus, and by analogy of form, petioles of celery, Swiss chard and cardoon.

artichoke, cauliflower, broccoli. They may be flowers in the broad sense, including whole inflorescences.

  • fruit vegetables

They may be eaten mature (tomato, pumpkin) or immature (string bean, aubergine, zucchini)

Classification by botanical family

  • Alliaceae
  • Amaranthaceae
  • Araceae
  • Asparagaceae
  • Basellaceae
  • Brassicaceae
  • Chenopodiaceae
  • Compositae
  • Convolvulaceae
  • Cucurbitaceae
  • Labiatae
  • Leguminosae
  • Malvaceae
  • Moringaceae
  • Solanaceae
  • Tropaeolaceae
  • Ruscaceae
  • Umbelliferae
  • Urticaceae
  • Valerianaceae
  • Vitaceae