Red, yellow, black, orange, white, green, striped; cherry, beef and plum – Solanum lycopersicum has variety!
Ripe tomatoes eaten sun-warmed, fresh off the vine; rotten tomatoes traditionally thrown at bad actors and performers on stage; green tomatoes – an economical use of unripened fruit to provide a food source – chutney.
Tomatoes are short lived perennials plants, originally from South America. They’re not frost tolerant and so in temperate regions we generally consider them to be annuals, grown from seed or bought in as small plants. A member of the Solanaceae family which also includes deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) and sweet peppers (Capsicum annuum) and the ornamental climber Solanum crispum ‘Glasnevin‘ or potato vine. Tomatoes, like the other family members, contain alkaloids: the leaves and stems are toxic, as are the uncooked, unripened fruit.
Botanically speaking, the tomato is a fruit not a vegetable, its seeds encompassed by flesh. However, in 1893, the United States Supreme Court defined it as a vegetable; mainly, one feels, so that it should remain taxable as an ‘imported vegetable’. Tomatoes originally grew wild in South America and have been cultivated in Central America since about 700AD. The word tomato derives from the Aztec ‘xitomatl’. The history of the tomato’s wanderings from the South to Central Americas to Europe and Asia, then back to the Americas is not fully documented. The early movement could well have been incidental if traders in other crops and seeds inadvertently carried tomato seeds with them, or even dropped seeds as they themselves ate the sweet fruit.
The tomato was most definitely in domestication by the Aztecs by the early 16th century. There’s evidence for recipes containing peppers, tomatoes and seasoning – an early salsa recipe, no less!
So it seems likely that tomatoes were taken over to Spain and the Mediterranean by the Conquistadores and other early explorers. The first recorded mention of tomatoes in Europe is in Mattioli’s herbal of 1544 where they are called ‘pomi d’oro’, or golden apple, which suggests that they were small yellow tomatoes. They were considered an aphrodisiac and the name ‘pomme d’amour’ or ‘love apple’ was also used. Both of these names could even be corruptions of ‘pomo dei moro’ or Moorish apple, which implies southern Spain.
The northern European countries were less keen on the new introduction, being wary of their poisonous qualities and they weren’t a big food seller until the late 18th century. This didn’t stop tomatoes being taken as ornamental plants by colonists from Europe to North America. Gradually they were accepted as food; Thomas Jefferson, who was a great gardener as well as a Founding Father and US President, cultivated tomatoes in his vegetable garden at Monticello.
Jefferson also encouraged his neighbours to eat tomatoes – which was a wise move as ripe tomatoes are definitely one of the ‘healthy foods’. Not only do they contain vitamin C – more than an orange, but they are chock full of anti-oxidants. Lycopene is a carotenoid pigment that has long been associated with the deep red colour of many tomatoes although it is present in all tomatoes to a greater or lesser degree. It is the ‘magic ingredient’ in tomatoes which helps to reduce cholesterol and would seem to reduce likelihood of osteoporosis in post menopausal women.
In the UK, commercial tomato production began in glasshouses in Kent, Sussex and Guernsey during the 19th century. Tomatoes are one of the most widely grown ‘vegetables’ worldwide, and have even been grown in space…although not yet by Doctor Who in his TARDIS…
Whether you would like your garden designed around tomatoes or more conventionally, why not get in touch?