Ian Duggan, Te Aka Mātuatua – School of Science, The University of Waikato
People have long shown a peculiar interest in oddly-shaped vegetables grown in the garden, such as root vegetables whose growth has diverged greatly from their symmetrical expectations. This may be in part due to vegetables bought from stores being more uniform in appearance, which has represented a norm based on consumer preferences for many years.
Root vegetables can become misshapen for a number of reasons. For example, some can split if the tip is damaged early in their growth, forming multiple roots attached to a single point. Further, to prevent damage to the developing root, root vegetables will detect, then grow around or avoid obstacles such as rocks in the soil, resulting in an even broader variety of shapes. Other reasons given for vegetables developing into unusual shapes includes them being grown too densely, with an excess of nitrogen in the soil, or due to changes in weather (and thus soil) conditions during growth.
Many oddly-shaped vegetables have in the past been deemed newsworthy, often due to their perceived ‘amusing’ appearance. For example, some have been thought to resemble animals or body parts. I used PapersPast to examine New Zealand newspapers for photographs of unusual-shaped vegetables prior to 1950; these were remarkedly common in the 1930s and 1940s, in particular. Below I provide a non-exhaustive series of examples, concentrating on some of the major trends observed.
Perhaps the strangest of photographs published are those said to resemble humans or pop-culture characters. These have usually been potatoes, and were commonly altered somewhat to enhance any perceived similarities. For example, Dunedin’s Evening Star reported in 1938 “a potato which, after a few additions, closely resembles Mickey Mouse” […it didn’t; Fig. 1], while in 1942 The Press, Canterbury, covered a “strangely-shaped potato”… “grown by a Christchurch school girl, who gave it match-stick arms, legs, and buttons” [Fig. 2]. The Timaru Herald reported an unaltered “freak potato” in 1932, “with its human expression and curiously shaped ears”, which “startled a New Zealand grower recently while he was digging up tubers for his Sunday dinner” [Fig 3].
Vegetables resembling birds have been remarkedly commonly reported. Otago Daily Times reported “a freak potato” in 1937, “grown by a resident of Sawyers’ Bay”, that “bears a striking resemblance to a bird” [Fig 4]. Similarly, the Evening Post, Wellington, published a photograph of another “curious potato” in 1931, “grown in Aro Street, Wellington, by Mr, Max Eller. It has the appearance of a swan” [Fig 5]. The Press (Canterbury) provided a photograph of a potato in 1932 that was perhaps so convincing that they did not even feel the need to name it as a bird: “This weird specimen was grown at Tirau… by Mr M. Fell” [Fig 6]. In case the reader was doubting its authenticity, they added: “Our photographer assures us that the potato was not “faked” in any way”. While potatoes provided the most common bird-shaped vegetables, the Manawatu Standard ran a picture of another “garden freak”: “A peculiarly-shaped kumara, grown by a Green Lane resident” in 1930 [Fig 7].
Hands and feet, primarily derived from carrots, are so common that I provide only a small subset of representative examples here. Setting the scene, in 1946 the Otago Daily Times published a carrot, “grown at Hyde”, which they state “bears a remarkable resemblance to a human hand” [Fig 8]. The Evening Star, similarly published “a freak carrot with a remarkable resemblance to a human, if slightly pudgy, hand” in 1936 [Fig 9]. “It came from the garden of Millan Aitken, a boy living at Anderson’s Bay, and assumed this peculiar form by natural growth”. Not all are so convincing, or deemed “remarkable”, however, including a “Shorthorn carrot freak, grown in Cutten Street, St. Kilda”, published in the Evening Star, 1935 [Fig 10].
Finally, there were some photographs of other strange, more one-off objects. In 1935, the Evening Star published what it described as “one of nature’s jokes”… “no, not another prehistoric animal discovery, nor yet the religious symbol of a savage race; only a common potato of freakish form unearthed by a Dunedin gardener” [Fig 11]. In 1926, the Auckland Star reported that “an Auckland dealer found this peculiarly-shaped potato in his first sack of this season’s crop”. This one, slightly modified by “the inking in of the eyebrows (the only addition by the finder)” apparently gave it “a particularly human look” [Fig 12]. Finally, the Otago Daily Times reported another “freak of nature” in 1947: They stated that, “at first glance this potato, dug up in South Dunedin garden bears a distinct resemblance to “Joey”, a “sea lion which frequented St. Clair beach some time ago” [Fig 13].