Jill Severn's Gardening Column

Wild tomato stories


There are currently two origin stories about tomatoes. One is that they were originally the size of a berry, and grew in the mountains of Peru, where Incas began to cultivate and eat them. The second story is that another wild species grew further north in the Andes, and was the size of a cherry tomato. People apparently relay-shared one or both species with neighbors further and further north until they reached the heart of Aztec empire in Mexico. Tomatoes got bigger, possibly because the Aztecs knew about plant selection and improvement.

Then, in the 16th century, Spaniards showed up and spread plagues of disease, theft and cruelty. Along with all the gold they stole, they took tomatoes back to Europe with them.

Many Europeans assumed they were poisonous, because tomatoes are part of the same plant family (Solanaceae) as deadly nightshade. People grew them as an ornamental plant. But some brave souls did eat them and begin to cultivate and cook with them.

Some early eaters died

However, some rich nobles ate cooked tomato dishes and died, which reignited the tomato fear among the hoi polloi. But since there was no Instagram, X or TikTok, most people didn’t hear about the dead nobles.

At some point, it was determined that the nobles didn’t die from the tomatoes; they died because they ate on pewter dishes. The acidity of the tomatoes drew up the lead from their plates, and they died from lead poisoning.

Eventually, pizza was invented and tomatoes won the day. Hybridizers got to work breeding ever bigger and tastier varieties.

Still, until very recently, tomatoes’ leaves and stems were considered mildly poisonous, though some people eat them, and researchers are investigating their possible health benefits. One guy also liked their smell so much he made a tomato leaf perfume.

Tomato history in the United States echoes the Europeans: initial cultivation of tomatoes solely as an ornamental plant, and slow acceptance of their culinary and nutritional value. Apparently, the one unique American contribution to the history of the tomato was the invention of canned tomato soup.

And though Americans never had the pewter plate/lead poisoning panic, we did have an even more bizarre one: fear of a scary-looking horned green tomato worm. For a time in the mid-19th century, it was believed that touching this worm could cause death, and that any tomato it touched would be poisonous too. Even Ralph Waldo Emerson was afraid of the worms, and described them as “an object of much terror.”

Tomatoes gone global

Now tomatoes have gone global. Anywhere on earth where they can be grown, they are. Where sun and warmth are insufficient, greenhouses extend their range.

Now there are so many tomatoes around that on the last Wednesday of August, the Spanish town of Buñol hosts “La Tomatina,” a food fight festival featuring 100 metric tons of over-ripe tomatoes. This festival has become so popular that they now limit the number of participants to 20,000. (In 2012, 50,000 people showed up in this 9,000-person town.)

The tomato-throwing begins with the shooting of water cannons at noon, and lasts for one hour. There are rules; one of them is “You must squash the tomatoes before throwing them as this reduces the impact.”

There is also official advice:  “Wear old clothes . . . you may find goggles useful . . . ensure that you always have something clean to wipe your eyes with. . . the best thing is if you tuck your T-Shirt into your shorts to keep the bottom part of your T-shirt clean and dry.”

When it’s all over, it’s quite a mess:

“The cleaning process involves the use of fire trucks to spray down the streets, with water provided from a Roman aqueduct. The authorities seem more concerned with cleaning the town than cleaning the visitors, so some people find water at the Buñol River to wash themselves, although some kind residents will hose passers-by down. Once the tomato pulp is flushed, the ground is clean due to the acidity of the tomato.”

Those squashed tomatoes of Bunol are far from their ancestral home in the Andes, in both time and travel. So are the ones many of us are planting this weekend.

Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers, and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversation among gardeners. Start one by emailing her at  jill@theJOLTnews.com


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  • urbanagrarian

    To learn even more about the fascinating history of the tomato read Barry Estabrook's book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit.

    Saturday, May 11 Report this