Plants native to Indonesia are nutmeg, cloves, ginger, sago palm, and bananas. Bananas have been cultivated by archipelago farmers since 1500–1000 B.C.E. Many of the plants important in Indonesian histories as sustenance for local populations and as exports are native to other parts of Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas. Names of the farmers who tried raising food plants native to China (such as rice, a staple for most Indonesians today) or India (pepper) two thousand and more years ago cannot be known.
In this ancient Asian history of experimental farming India is important as the source of many plants established in Indonesian landscapes. Indian plants had a dynamic impact on early Indonesian economies, just as Indian alphabets had on intellectual histories. Cotton, grown for clothing fiber, originated in India and was introduced into Java around 300 B.C.E. It later spread to north Bali, south Sulawesi, and Selayar. The palmyra palm, used for the manufacture of paper, was cultivated by the third millennium B.C.E in southern India and spread into the eastern archipelago. Pepper was domesticated in its native Mumbai region of India by 1000 B.C.E and cultivated in the western Indonesian archipelago from around 600 B.C.E Sugar, native to Southeast Asia, was cultivated by the third or second millennium B.C.E.
Diffusion of plants is not always direct. In Indonesian histories, Europeans introduced coffee bushes from Yemen in the early eighteenth century, breadfruit from Polynesia, and cinnamon which is native to Sri Lanka. (Unlike the early history, the dates and names of many European introducers of foreign species are known, and experiments in cultivating introduced plants in Indonesia can be studied.) In the early twentieth century the Dutch also introduced mulberry bushes, which are native to southern China, to hilly areas of Sulawesi, especially Soppeng. European vegetables such as cabbage, carrots, lettuce, and legumes, and fruits such as strawberries and apples were brought to the archipelago, raised in hill stations, and entered the diet of local communities. From the Americas Europeans brought food plants which form the core of today’s Indonesian diet and cookery: maize, sweet potatoes, cassava, capsicums, chilies, peanuts, and tomatoes. Indonesian farmers and cooks adopted them as mainstays for a population that did not have access to irrigated rice land. They also applied foreign plants to local needs. After oil was pressed out from peanuts, a cake remained which farmers used for manuring garden plots.
Also critical for the livelihood and health of Indonesians was tobacco, which was brought from South America to Indonesia by the Spanish. The modern colonial history of Indonesia is bound up with large-scale growing of tobacco for export to Europe. Since the sixteenth century Indonesian men, women, and children have also smoked and chewed it, and tobacco was of sufficient importance in people’s lives for its introduction to be recorded in a Javanese epic, Babad Jaka Tingkir (Tale of Jaka Tingkir).