Plant Palette

Plant Palette

Tomatoes

Photo of Jennifer Schultz Nelson

Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
jaschult@illinois.edu

Many people who don't consider themselves a vegetable gardener have grown at least a tomato plant or two in their lifetime. Some people I have spoken to are very passionate about what kind of tomatoes they grow. One friend told me recently, "you're wasting your time growing anything but Early Girl". Some people just want a nice round tomato to slice for sandwiches, while others, like myself, seem to grow anything but round red tomatoes.

The tomato may seem very commonplace and even boring, but it has a rich history that dates back thousands of years.

There is a scientific hypothesis that in order to find where in the world a food crop originated, you should look for the area where there is the most diversity of that crop growing in the wild. The thought is that when the crop was domesticated for food use, the growers only captured part of the plant's genetic diversity in the process. There is still a whole population of wild plant out there, with all of its wide ranging diversity.

Applying this idea to tomato, scientists concluded that the mountains of Peru were the birthplace of the tomato, members of the genus Lycopersicon.

However, the origin of the cultivated tomato seems to be a bit farther north, with the Aztecs of Central America. Spanish explorers of the 15th Century found the Aztecs eating what we now know as the tomato.

Historians have concluded that the Aztecs cultivated and began consuming tomatoes long before the Europeans arrived. Ancient Aztec writings mention recipes for tomato, while Peruvian writings do not, though Peru is technically where tomatoes are said to originate.

Historians have no way of knowing exactly how the tomato made its way from Peru to Central America, but something about the tomato caught the Aztecs' attention, and it became an important food crop for their people. Scientists believe that the Aztecs began to domesticate the tomato species Lycopersicon esculentum.

Keep in mind that the Aztecs were not cultivating big juicy tomatoes like we do today. The tomato the Aztecs grew, Lycopersicon esculentum var. cerasiforme, grows semi-wild in Central America still today and are small fruited, very similar to what we call a cherry tomato.

The designation "var." cerasiforme indicates a botanical variety. A botanical variety is a subgroup within a species with specific traits that are inherited and different from the straight species.

Many scientists believe the Lycopersicon esculentum var. cerasiforme that the Aztecs grew was the ancestor to all modern tomato cultivars. Today, there are four additional botanical varieties among the cultivated tomato, Lycopersicon esculentum.

Lycopersicon esculentum var. commune is what we call the common tomato. Lycopersicon esculentum var. pyriforme is the pear tomato. Lycopersicon esculentum var. grandifolium is the potato-leafed tomato. Its leaves look like its cousin the potato. Lycopersicon esculentum var. validum is the upright tomato.

The first records of tomatoes being grown in Europe date back to the early 1500's. People in southern Europe consumed tomatoes on a very limited basis at first, but they did eat them. Northern Europe however, regarded tomatoes as a horticultural curiosity for over a century. At one point tomatoes were only described as an ornamental plant, not to be eaten. People were afraid that tomatoes were poisonous, as they are members of the Solanaceae, or nightshade family, which contains several poisonous species.

As people learned to trust that tomato fruits were in fact not poisonous, their popularity grew. But it took many many years for tomatoes to be a commonly consumed food. By the mid-1800's tomatoes were rising in popularity very quickly as a food item rather than an ornamental plant.

Cultivated tomatoes are self-pollinating, and so the seeds produced tend to look a lot like the parent plant. Many years of self-pollinating increases this tendency. It was not uncommon for early tomato lovers to save seed from year to year from their favorite cultivars. Many of these favorites are still around today, and are what we call heirloom varieties.

I am a big fan of growing heirloom varieties. Unfortunately, they don't usually yield as much as some of the more modern varieties, but they make up for it in taste and unusual colors and shapes. This year I am growing white, striped, purple, pink, orange, and yellow ones. Some are small, some are giant beefsteak size and some are even hollow.

We will be sampling these varieties at our 6th annual Tomato Taste Panel on September 7, 8 and 9 in Macon, Piatt, and DeWitt Counties. This year we will have about 30 tomato varieties available to taste. Please register by calling the Macon County office at (217) 877-6042 or on our website: web.extension.illinois.edu/dmp/ .

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