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Ethnobotany of the Tomato Plant
The origin of the cultivated tomato is somewhat unclear. Ethnobotanists and geneticists however have attempted to track down the centre of domestication. "The genus Lycopersicon- the botanical group to which the tomato belongs- is native to western South America, and only Lycopersicon lycopersicum var. cerasiforme, the wild cherry form of the cultivated species, has spread throughout Latin America and the New World Tropics. Second, the tomato was not known in Europe until after the discovery and conquest of America, descriptions and drawings first appearing in the European herbals of the middle and late 16th century. Third, these writings clearly reveal that man had been trying to improve the size of the tomato and the diversity of its shape and color. These achievements over the wild ancestors were almost certainly achieved by early man in America. Mexico appears to have been the site of domestication and the source of the earliest introductions, and the wild cherry tomato was probably the immediate ancestor." As a matter of fact, "the bulk of the historical, linguistic, archaeological and ethnobotanical evidence favours Mexico, particularly the Vera Cruz-Puebla area, as the source of the cultivated tomatoes that were first transported to the Old World. " Although the origin of the tomato is somewhat clouded, there is no doubt that the cultigen of today has had a long journey.
When the tomato finally made its way to Europe, the public responded with fear for several probable reasons. First, tomatoes belong to the family Solanaceae, which includes Datura and Belladonna - the deadly nightshade, among other poisonous species. The assumption was that tomatoes must be poisonous as well. Second, in Germany, because of its terrible smell, the tomato plant was rejected. The tomato acquired names like the "Devil's wolf apple." This great fear of toxicity of the tomato plant probably prevented its utilization for many centuries. Today, the toxicity of the Solanaceae family has been studied extensively, and it has been found that most of the species are posionous. Obviously Belladonna and Datura are among the more poisonous members of the family, but the potato plant is also quite toxic. Lycopersicon spp., which are less toxic than the other members of the family, contain tomatine, a toxic glycoalkaloid .
Many wild relatives of the tomato such as Lycopersicon esculentum var. cerasiforme, L. chilense, L. peruvianum, L. hirsutum, and L. pimpinellifolium are among the richest genetic pools available for cross breeding. Almost all of the effective resistances to virulent tomato diseases have been found from wild species of Lycopersicon and Solanum. Geneticists from UC Davis have been making trips to the Andes and Central America in search of new species since 1948. Since then, researchers have amassed a germplasm stock effective against over 42 diseases. "Few other crops are blessed with such extensive collections of wild forms and their derivatives." Not only are these wild relatives valuable sources of genetic material for disease control and prevention, but also for arthropod resistance, improving fruit quality, abiotic stress tolerance, and drought/cold resistance among many others.
There are many legends about the tomato. For example, it has been claimed that tomatoes were not widely eaten in the U.S. or Europe until the late 1800s. It has sometimes been claimed that tomatoes were considered aphrodisiacs and so were shunned by the Puritans. Many legends also maintain that the tomato was introduced into the U.S. by one particular person. Thomas Jefferson is sometimes mentioned, but the most famous legend of this sort was introduced by Joseph S. Sickler in the mid-1900s, and became the subject of a CBS broadcast of You Are There in 1949. The story goes that the lingering doubts about the safety of the tomato in the United States were largely put to rest in 1820, when Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson announced that at noon on September 26, he would eat a basket of tomatoes in front of the Salem, New Jersey courthouse. Reportedly, a crowd of more than 2,000 persons gathered in front of the courthouse to watch the poor man die after eating the poisonous fruits, and were shocked when he lived. In his book, Smith notes that there is little, if any, historical evidence for any of these legends, and that they continue to be repeated largely because they are good stories.
It is also said that the tomato became popular in France during the French Revolution, because the revolutionaries' iconic color was red, and at one point it was suggested that they should eat red food as a show of loyalty. Since European royalty was still leery of the nightshade-related tomato, it apparently was the perfect choice. This may also be why the first reported use of the tomato in the U.S. was in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1812, because of the French influence in that region.
According to Andrew F. Smith's The Tomato in America, the tomato probably originated in the highlands on the west coast of South America. Smith notes that there is no evidence that the tomato was cultivated or even eaten before the Spanish arrived. Other researchers, however, have pointed out that this is not conclusive, as many other fruits in continuous cultivation in Peru are not present in the very limited historical record. Much horticultural knowledge was lost after the arrival of Europeans, as the Roman Catholic Church had a policy of burning pre-Columbian information as pagan.
In any case, by some means the tomato migrated to Central America. Mayan and other peoples in the region used the fruit in their cooking, and it was being cultivated in southern Mexico, and probably in other areas, by the sixteenth century. The large, lumpy tomato, a mutation from a smoother, smaller fruit, originated and was encouraged in Central America. Smith states that this variant is the direct ancestor of some modern cultivated tomatoes.
After the Spanish conquest of South America, the Spanish distributed the tomato throughout their colonies in the Caribbean. They also brought it to the Philippines, from which point it moved to southeast Asia and then the entire Asian continent.
The Spanish also brought the tomato to Europe. It grew easily in Mediterranean climates, and cultivation began in the 1540s. It was probably eaten shortly after it was introduced, though it was certainly being used as food by the early 1600s in Spain. The earliest discovered cookbook with tomato recipes was published in Naples in 1692, though the author had apparently obtained these recipes from Spanish sources.
Tomatoes in Italy
Because the plant was clearly similar to its nightshade congeners, it was assumed for years to be poisonous in Italy, where it was grown as a decorative plant. Eventually the peasant classes discovered that it could be eaten when more desirable food was scarce. This eventually developed into a whole cuisine of tomato dishes, as the wonders of the fruit became obvious. But this took several centuries, wide acceptance not happening until the 18th century.
Tomatoes in Britain
The tomato plant was not grown in England until the 1590s, according to Smith. One of the earliest cultivators was John Gerard, a barber-surgeon. Gerard's Herbal, published in 1597, and largely plagiarized from continental sources, is also one of the earliest discussions of the tomato in England. Gerard knew that the tomato was eaten in both Spain and Italy. Nonetheless, he believed that it was poisonous (tomato leaves and stems are indeed poisonous but the fruit is safe). Gerard's views were influential, and the tomato was considered unfit for eating (though not necessarily poisonous) for many years in Britain and its North American colonies. By the mid 1700s, however, tomatoes were widely eaten in Britain, and before the end of that century the Encyclopaedia Britannica stated that the tomato was "in daily use" in soups, broths, and as a garnish. Tomatoes were originally known as 'Love Apples', possibly based on a mistranslation of the Italian name pomo d'oro (golden apple) as pomo d'amoro.
Young tomato plants in a garden
Smith states that the earliest reference to tomatoes in British North America is from 1710, when herbalist William Salmon reported seeing them in what is today South Carolina. They may have been introduced from the Caribbean. By the mid-18th century they were cultivated on some Carolina plantations, and probably in other parts of the South as well. It is possible that some people continued to think tomatoes were poisonous at this time, and in general they were grown more as ornamental plants than as food. Cultured people like Thomas Jefferson, who ate tomatoes in Paris and sent some seeds home, knew the tomato was edible, but many of the less well-educated did not.
However, according to Smith, this changed in the early 19th century, first in the Southern states and then throughout the country, tomatoes began to be used regularly as food. In some regions this may have happened quite quickly; for example, in an 1824 speech before the Albemarle Agricultural Society, Jefferson's son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph discussed the transformation of Virginia farming due to the introduction of new crops. He mentioned how tomatoes were virtually unknown ten years earlier, but by 1824 everyone was eating them because it was believed they kept one's blood pure in the heat of summer .
As Randolph's speech shows, medicinal powers were sometimes attributed to tomatoes. The idea that tomatoes could be used as a curative was fully developed by Dr. John Cook Bennett, who believed that tomatoes could treat diarrhea, dyspepsia, and other stomach ailments. Bennett's claims were widely publicized in the 1830s, in part because they were fun to mock, and in part because the tomato was still a novelty. Soon tomato pills were being sold, and people began to testify to miracle cures caused by the healing powers of tomatoes. They were even recommended as a cure for cholera (since tomatoes are a healthy food, they may have actually been a better alternative than other, decidedly harmful medical practices of the day). It is possible that it really did "cure" ailments which were due to shortages of fresh fruit in the diet.
The tomato mania lasted only a few years, but it enormously boosted tomato consumption, and contributed to an increase in tomato sales throughout the 1830s and 1840s. By the end of this period, Smith demonstrates, tomatoes were an established part of the American diet.
Botanically speaking a tomato is the ovary, together with its seeds, of a flowering plant, i.e. a fruit. However, from a culinary perspective the tomato is typically served as a meal, or part of a main course of a meal, meaning that it would be considered a vegetable (a culinary term which has no botanical meaning). This argument has led to actual legal implications in the United States. In 1887, U.S. tariff laws which imposed a duty on vegetables but not on fruits caused the tomato's status to become a matter of legal importance. The U.S. Supreme Court settled this controversy in 1893, declaring that the tomato is a vegetable, along with cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas, using the popular definition which classifies vegetables by use, that they are generally served with dinner and not dessert. The case is known as Nix v. Hedden.
In concordance with this classification, the tomato has been proposed as the state vegetable of New Jersey.
Genetically modified fruits and vegetables are being looked at as vehicles to deliver vaccines [for more information, see "A Needle or a Banana?"]. Along with the potato and the banana, the tomato is a potential candidate for use as one of these "edible vaccines."