East Asia's Big Frijoles

Originally posted on Agritate, which is no longer active.

I stumbled upon (not Stumbled, just came upon) some recent research about soybean domestication in China, Korea, and Japan. Although soybean (Glycine max) is a huge crop nowadays, the answers to what/where/when/by whom of its domestication hasn’t really been clarified satisfactorily. The researchers from the University of Toronto found that domestication of soybean started anywhere from 8,500 to 9,000 years ago, rather than the 3,000 to 5,000 years previously assumed. And not just in one place—although the earliest evidence of domestication is in northern China, Korea and Japan threw their hats in the race too, separately selecting different soybean varieties from the wild weeds growing around everywhere in East Asia.

Here’s my attempt at growing soybean in my studio apartment three years ago. The indoor gardening experiment was a series of mixed results, but the legumes grew admirably in horrid conditions—a testament to their previous life as weeds!

China’s original domesticated seeds were teeny tiny, the researchers say, and stayed that way for a few thousand years as other traits (perhaps dehiscence or bushiness) were selected before seed size started to increase.

One interesting thing that the researchers suggest—which seems pretty plausible and simple, but is not yet actually conclusively linked—is that the determinancy of domesticated soybean (growing to a low bushy plant rather than a stretching vine of wild soybean) could be a trait that allows for the larger seeds we like to eat—putting photosynthetic energy into seed formation rather than continued vegetative growth allows for a bigger snack on the dinner table.

Personally, I like a nice rambler growing wild over my fence, down my stairway railing, or even up the curtains in my apartment, which is why I’m planning on growing chayote this year. But I can see how it would be much easier to grow and harvest plants that had a more manageable shape and growth habit.

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