Columns, In the Garden

Tomatoes: From the Wild to Domestic

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photo by Tom Herman
Tomatoes, which were first discovered growing wild in the Andes Mountains of South America, are the most popular home-grown vegetable crop in the United States today.

by Deborah J. Benoit, Extension Master Gardener, University of Vermont

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. – Tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) have been on our tables and in our gardens for so long, it’s nearly impossible to think of them as growing in the wild. Once upon a time they did just that.

That’s not to say that a typical supermarket tomato or a tasty, red Mortgage Lifter or Big Boy could be enjoyed back then. Tomatoes have undergone centuries of cultivation and hybridization and have changed much during that time. Today, there are more than 10,000 varieties of tomatoes.

Hundreds of years ago, long before Europeans had set foot in the New World, tomatoes grew wild in the Andes of western South America. The indigenous people cultivated them, eventually bringing the plant northward through Central America and into Mexico. When the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century, they found the inhabitants growing a food crop called “tomatl” in the native language.

Tomato seeds were brought from Mexico to Spain by those early explorers. From there the plant spread to Italy by the mid-1500s where it began to be incorporated into regional cuisine. Over the following decades, tomato plants were cultivated throughout Europe, but primarily as an ornamental plant.

Along the way, the tomato was known by a number of names, including wolf peach and gold apple. In France, it was called a love apple (pomme d’amour) and thought to be an aphrodisiac. Because the tomato was mistakenly considered to be poisonous by many, it was referred to as the “poison apple.”

It’s a fact that the leaves, stems and roots of the tomato contain solanine, a neurotoxin, and thus should not be eaten. The tomato also is a relative of deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna).

The apparent proof of the tomato’s poisonous nature was based on a false assumption. While it was true that upper class Europeans did die after consuming tomatoes, the fault was not with the tomato but with the pewter dinnerware used. The high level of acidity in tomatoes leached lead from the pewter, and those wealthy enough to afford to dine on pewter dinnerware died from lead poisoning after consuming tomato-based dishes.

In the early 1700s, the tomato returned to the Americas with European colonists. At that time it was still grown primarily as an ornamental plant in the northern colonies but grown for its fruit in southern regions. Its popularity continued to increase.

Thomas Jefferson reportedly grew tomatoes in his vegetable garden at Monticello and enjoyed eating the fruit. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that tomatoes’ popularity became widespread throughout the United States.

Today, tomatoes are grown around the world and are a star of international cuisine. They are grown in home gardens and on commercial farms.

They are eaten raw, served cooked in a variety of dishes and processed into products that line our supermarket shelves. Tomatoes are the most popular home-grown vegetable crop in the country.

However, are tomatoes really a vegetable?

While botanically a fruit (actually a berry), due to their sugar content being well below that of other fruits, tomatoes are used as, and popularly considered, a vegetable.

In addition, legally speaking, as a result of the case of Nix v. Hedden, which was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1893, tomatoes are considered a vegetable according to the Tariff Act of March 3, 1883.

The real question isn’t whether it’s a fruit or vegetable. The question is, with so many choices, what type of tomato will you choose to grow in your garden this year?

For more information on the history of tomatoes, see https://go.uvm.edu/tomato-history.

[Deborah J. Benoit is a UVM Extension Master Gardener from North Adams, Massachusetts, who is part of the Bennington County Chapter.]

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