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Lens culinaris, lentil, is an annual herbaceous plant in the Fabaceae (legume or bean family) that is considered to be one of the world’s oldest crops. The species is not found in the wild, but was domesticated in the Fertile Crescent between 7,000 and 5,000 B.C., probably from the wild progenitor L. orientalis. Lentils are now cultivated in diverse varieties throughout the Middle East, India, and the Mediterranean region, as well as in North and South America, for their nutritious seeds.

The lentil plant grows to around 0.5 m (1.5 ft) in height as a slender bush or twining vine. The leaves are alternate and compound, with 4 to 7 pinnate (opposite) pairs of leaflets, ending in a tendril or short bristle. The flowers are small and white to bluish, either solitary or in clusters of several, and form small fruits—flattened legumes or pods—containing one or two lens-shaped seeds. Numerous cultivars vary in the seed size and texture, and colors range from green to yellow to orange to red and brown.

Lentils are high in protein and B vitamins, and are used in many typical Indian and Mediterranean dishes. They are cooked in soups and stews (similar in many preparations to dried beans)—the Indian dish known as “daal” is prepared from lentils--or can be sprouted and eaten in salads.

The FAO estimates that total commercial production of lentils worldwide was 4.6 million metric tons, harvested from 4.2 million hectares. Canada alone produced 41% of the world total. Other leading producers were India, Turkey, the U.S., and Nepal (where lentils were the 16th largest cash crop).

(Bailey et al. 1976, FAOSTAT 2012, van Wyk 2005.)


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