From an early age, we’re told to eat our vegetables. Technically, a vegetable is a food item used to complement other items in a main dish, while a fruit would generally be consumed by itself or as a dessert.

What is the difference? Fruits and vegetables are botanically both plants - ‘fruits’ come from the ovary of a flowering part of a plant and contain seeds, and in contrast, ‘vegetables’ are the leaves, stems, roots, and bulbs. But there’s always an exception to the rule.

Seeds inside means it’s a fruit – or does it?

First, anything that contains the seeds of the plant is a fruit, not a vegetable – but squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant and avocados all contains seeds, but we eat them as vegetables. Even pumpkins are fruits – as are tomatoes because they develop from a pollinated flower – so technically they are fruits.

There can be no argument that grapes are a fruit, but the grapevine leaves are sometimes traditionally stuffed with seasoned rice, and/or meat in some countries, making them a vegetable too.

Rhubarb? Tastes fruity, but is actually the stem of a vegetable. It is actually quite sour until you add sugar, and is well known as a popular dessert ingredient. But it is still considered a vegetable, as only the plant's stem, or stalk, is edible. Its roots and leaves contain oxalic acid, a substance that is toxic to the kidneys – so don’t eat them!

Olives may be eaten as savoury, but they too are a fruit. Not only are they formed from the ovary of a flower, but their pits make them seed-bearing.


Eggplants are botanically classified as berries as they have tiny edible seeds, and so are actually botanically classed as berries. Avocados are actually giant berries too, and to be precise, are a single-seeded, oversized berry.

So what are vegetables?

Well, potatoes, carrots and onions are definitely vegetables, and to my mind, so are beans, but like peas, beans are a member of the legume family — they're seeds that come in pods, and that makes them fruit.

Confusingly, both broccoli and cauliflower are both flowers of the plant they are named for - cauliflower being underdeveloped, being tightly bound. Artichokes are also flowers that have yet to bloom. The ‘choke’ of the artichoke — the prickly, fuzzy stuff above the artichoke’s heart that you regret eating almost immediately — ultimately becomes the gorgeous purple flower of the artichoke plant.

Cabbage, Brussels sprouts, lettuce, kale and chard are all made up of leaf tissue and, if left alone long enough, the plant will flower, and in the gardening world, this is called ‘bolting’. Asparagus are the shoots of the plant, and the tip would develop leaves that look like ferns if left in the field long enough.

One more fun fact to tuck into your trivia pocket — figs are a fleshy, inside-out flower, and helps explain why you have to be quick picking them, as pollination occurs when tiny wasps bore into them, so you need to get there first!

Some commercially grown figs have sometimes been ripened without pollination, by tricking plants into ripening by spraying them with plant hormones. Even when figs are grown the old-fashioned way, with wasps, they produce a chemical called “ficin” which effectively breaks down, or digests, animal proteins, and the wasp is long gone by the time the fig crosses your lips.

In simple terms, fig trees don’t flower like apples and oranges, as their flowers bloom inside the pear-shaped pod, which later matures into the fruit we eat. Each flower then produces a single, one-seeded, hard-shelled fruit called achene ― that’s what gives the fig the crunch we know ― and the fig is made up of multiple achene. So, when we eat a fig we are actually eating multiple fruits. Nice to eat straight from the tree, but also make a delicious chutney!


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan