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A History of the Ever-Popular Tomato

With such a popular and universal favorite as tomatoes, did you ever wonder about where tomatoes came from? In her book, “Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health,” organic gardener and author Jo Robinson describes wild ancestors of our modern-day tomatoes as “indeterminate—they keep growing all summer long and would mock your every attempt to stake them or confine them to cages.” As we travel in mind with her to the Andes Mountain plateaus of South America where tomatoes are native, she adds, “The tomatoes are so small that they look like red berries. Some of them are the size of blueberries and weight less than half a gram. You would have to eat 450 of these bitty tomatoes to consume the equivalent of one modern beefsteak tomato.”

Robinson notes, “The diminutive size of the wild tomatoes makes sense given the fact that all tomatoes are classified as a fruit, not a vegetable. (If a fruit or ‘vegetable’ has seeds or a pit, it’s a fruit.) Tomatoes are further relegated to the berry family. Those slabs of tomato that sit atop your BLT are, in reality, monstrous berries.”

According to Robinson, researchers have recently been returning to Peru to study these tiny native berries, and they have identified eight different species thus far. “The most nutritious species is the deep red Lycopersicon pimpinellifolium,” she adds. “The nutritional differences between these wild tomatoes and our modern behemoths are stunning. Ounce for ounce, they have up to forty times more lycopene than the large slicing tomatoes we buy in stores. They are also miniature flavor bombs. Take a bite of one, and its delectable juice will ricochet around your mouth, giving you a refresher course in tomato flavor.”

These researchers believe that South American farmers began cultivating wild tomatoes some 2,000 years ago or more, saving seeds to plant in their terraced hillside gardens. “Little is known about which varieties they planted,” she writes, “but we do have clues as to how they were eaten. The oldest existing recipe for tomatoes, blocked out in hieroglyphics, calls for tomatoes, chili peppers, and salt—the original salsa.”

Speculation is that tomato seeds were carried from Peru into Central America, Mexico and the Galapagos Islands by migrating birds, turtles, and shifting farmers, but they remained confined to the New World until the arrival of Spanish conqueror Hernando Cortes to the Yucatan Peninsula in 1519. After tasting the many different colors and flavors of tomatoes in the local marketplaces, Cortes found some that were agreeable and took seeds back to Spain. Within 20 years, tomatoes had spread from Spain to Italy and France, but northern Europeans were slow (several hundred years) to accept these newly introduced members of the well-known but poisonous nightshade plant family.

“Thomas Jefferson, a passionate foodie and gardener, was introduced to tomatoes in the 1780s while serving as the U.S. minister to France,” says Robinson. “He loved the strange fruits and brought back seeds to plant in his extensive gardens at Monticello. Every year, he wrote down the date that the first tomato ‘came to table.’ Thanks to Jefferson and other epicurean travelers, dozens of European varieties soon arrived on our shores. Most of them, however, came from just one species—Solanum lycopersicum. The other seven species remained sequestered in South America, including the outrageously nutritious Lycopersicum pimpinellifolium.”

Americans were also slow to accept the tomato as a food crop rather than as an ornamental, but finally in the 19th and 20th centuries, tomato breeders began to take on its image makeover challenge as they strived to make the fruits “more productive, uniform, and attractive,” notes Robinson. “By the early 1900s, U.S. consumers expected store-bought tomatoes to be large, thin-skinned, juicy, solid throughout, and free of warbles and ridges. Just as important, tomatoes had to be a uniform color from top to bottom.

“The nutritional consequences of creating uniformly red tomatoes were not known until a century later,” says Robinson. “The reason that the new varieties were a solid color, USDA researchers reported in the journal Science in 2012, is that they had a mutant gene that made them ripen uniformly. This gene had an unforeseen negative effect: it lowered the lycopene content of the tomatoes, making them less nutritious overall. Today, virtually all our modern varieties of tomatoes carry this mutant gene and are lower in lycopene as a result.”

But the author also cites the industrialization of tomato farming on very large acreages in California and Florida as the major causal factor in the loss of true tomato flavor. “For the first time, tomatoes were being shipped hundreds or even thousands of miles to reach their markets,” she says. “Some fresh fruits and vegetables can be shipped long distances and arrive at their destinations undamaged—potatoes, onions, carrots, and iceberg lettuce among them. Fully ripened tomatoes, however, are impossible to ship. No matter how carefully one places them into a packing crate, the fruit is likely to split or become bruised during transport. Even if it arrives intact, it is likely to be overripe, festooned with fruit flies, or on the verge of rotting.”

Again the tomato industry found a way to bypass this problem—by picking the fruits early at the first hint of color or “breaker” stage, they would still turn red in about two weeks. This allowed them to pick the fruits early and ship them cross-country to finish ripening on the supermarket shelves.

“Today, tomato production is a billion-dollar industry, and the ripening process has become an exact science,” declares Robinson. “Tomatoes are still picked at the breaker stage, but now they are shipped to regional warehouses, where they are force-ripened with precise amounts of ethylene gas. When the warehoused tomatoes become red enough to satisfy consumers—but not fully ripe—they are distributed to nearby stores. Ideally, they will finish ripening in the stores or in the home kitchen.

“Although force-ripened tomatoes can turn the requisite ‘tomato red,’ they are less sweet and more acidic than tomatoes that ripen under the sun,” she adds. “The aroma—an essential part of flavor—is all but gone. Even the most flavorful, garden-ripe, organic tomato will taste insipid if you eat it without inhaling.”

She recommends that when we are choosing tomatoes for eating at the supermarket or which varieties to grow in our gardens, we should take note of these simple facts: “Deep red tomatoes have more lycopene and overall antioxidant activity than yellow, gold or green tomatoes. As a rule, the smaller the tomato, the higher its sugar and lycopene content. On-the-vine tomatoes (in stores) are not field-ripened tomatoes. Processed (cooked) tomato products can be more flavorful and nutritious than fresh tomatoes. Store fresh tomatoes at room temperature to preserve their flavor. Cooking tomatoes converts lycopene into a form that is easier to absorb. Use the skin, juice and seeds (most nutritious and flavorful parts) of tomatoes whenever possible.”

Robinson feels that now is certainly the time for another tomato makeover, this one to be dedicated to flavor and nutrition, rather than industry needs. “I am happy to report that this revival is already underway,” she writes. “A few pioneering researchers have begun using conventional breeding methods to create new varieties of tomatoes that restore much of the flavor and health benefits of the wild fruit.” According to Robinson, the first seeds of these newly created, more healthy and flavorful cultivars will be available to home gardeners in the near future.

In the meantime, we at Seeds ‘n Such offer many of Robinson’s recommended varieties by name, including Buckabee’s Abraham Lincoln, Giant Belgium, Jet Star Hybrid, Juliet Hybrid F, Oxheart (Bull’s Heart), Red Pear, San Marzano and Suncherry Extra Sweet Hybrid FT.

But so many more of our offerings are also perfect fits as to her qualities required to be the most nutritious varieties other than those named earlier. Deep red, smaller-fruited standouts include Jolly Hybrid, Sugary Hybrid, Super Sweet 100 Hybrid VF, Jelly Bean Red Hybrid VFFASt, Sweet Million Hybrid FT, Sweet Chelsea Hybrid VFFNT, Fantastico Hybrid and Tomatoberry Garden Hybrid.

But best of all, there’s our Indigo Series, including Indigo Rose, Indigo Blue Chocolate, Indigo Cherry Drops and Indigo Blue Beauty, which comprise some of our healthiest varieties ever offered to date. In addition to lycopene, these blue-to-black-pigmented types also feature high levels of anthocyanins and antioxidants.

So, as we eagerly await the introduction of these “super-tomatoes” described by Robinson, we offer dozens of the healthiest, most flavorful varieties available right now! Pick and choose from these numerous varieties mentioned by name!

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