What is a Vegetable?

What's a Vegetable? 

I'm serious. Smarty-pants like to point out that tomatoes are actually a fruit, but so are eggplant and zucchini and cucumbers....

If broccoli is a flower, and carrots are a root, then what exactly is a vegetable?

Carrot is a Root (4).png

…. so WHAT’s a vegetable?


According to Wolfgang Stuppy, the research leader in Comparative Plant and Fungal Biology at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew & Wakehurst Place:

“The term vegetable doesn’t exist in botanical terminology.”

Simple as that.

Veggies might not exist botanically, but they’re not going anywhere culturally. So we're back to square one: what’s a vegetable? A quick flip through the dictionary is surprisingly unhelpful. Historically, the word “vegetable” has been synonymous with “plant.” If botanists say that there is no such thing as vegetables, lexicographers say that vegetables not only exist, but every living plant is one of them. So maybe we should be asking, "what isn't a vegetable?"

Some contemporary definitions do mention edibility, but I've found only one specific enough to be helpful. This was found in the Oxford English Dictionary. The first entry in the OED is so broad as to include: “any living organism that is not an animal,” but further down the definition roll, one key word surfaces: savory. Herein lies our answer.

When it comes to vegetables, it turns out that it's not a plant part’s botanical function that matters, but its culinary one. And any kid could tell you what’s what: vegetables are dinner and fruit is dessert. Of course! We've known it all along. Why were we ever asking this ridiculous question about vegetables? Oh yeah, tomatoes. Like many other savory vegetables, tomatoes are neither root, nor stalk, nor leaf, but--botanically speaking--fruit. This may be useful on trivia night, but it doesn’t change the way we eat them: for dinner.

So next time some hair-splitter tells you that tomatoes are a fruit...you let them know that strawberries are also a vegetable! 


Aubrey Yarbrough is the Community Development Manager for Farmer Mark. Before moving to LA she ran her own organic farm and cooked on the garde manger station at the award winning Elements restaurant in Princeton, NJ. She has contributed to Edible Jersey and her poetry will appear in the forthcoming issue of New American Writing.