Tomato - the fruit of love?

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The tomato is by far the most beloved fruit grown by home gardeners. Although it is commonly called a vegetable, technically it is a fruit.

The average American consumes about 18 pounds of fresh tomatoes a year. That includes store-bought "pink cardboard" varieties that grace grocers' shelves during winter, but not tomato products such as ketchup and tomato sauce (on pizza and spaghetti, in Sloppy Joes, etc.).

Yet, early in this country's history, tomatoes were far from popular - in fact they were believed by to be poisonous.

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Tomatoes are native to South America, but took a long route to North America. The originals - small berrylike fruits in clusters - were a far cry from the large varieties we know today.

These wild tomatoes spread from South America to Central America and Mexico.

There, the pre-Mayan Indians began to propagate the tiny fruits, and the Aztecs called the fruit tomatl.

When the Spanish conquistadors came to the Americas, they returned home not only with gold, but also the seeds of the tomatl. The Spanish adopted the fruit and adapted its name to tomate.

At one point, because of their heart shape, tomatoes were thought to be an aphrodisiac - hence the name "love apples." The Italians named the fruit pomodoro, meaning golden apple.

The earliest written reference to the tomato was in a European herbal in 1544, where it was described as another species of mandrake (a plant of the nightshade family) with yellow fruit. Botanists of the day thought tomato plants were poisonous (all parts except the fruit are indeed toxic). This idea stuck for hundreds of years.

It is said that Thomas Jefferson introduced Americans to tomatoes. At least he did grow

and eat them, to the surprise

of many.

In 1820, Col. Robert Gibbon Johnson ate a bushel of tomatoes on the steps of the courthouse in Salem, N. J. His survival convinced farmers that tomatoes were more than just ornamental plants.

Then, in 1870, Alexander Livingston of Reynoldsburg, Ohio, introduced Paragon, a variety that he described as "the first perfectly smooth, deep-red tomato ever offered to the American people." Soon, home gardeners were growing them, and the fruit's popularity zoomed.

Now there are hundreds of varieties of tomatoes, ranging in size from a pencil eraser to a grapefruit. They come in a variety of colors - red, orange, yellow, white, purple, and green. There are even "black" and bicolor tomatoes - all descendants of those ancient tiny fruits that originated in South America.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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