Tomatoes originated in the Mountains of Peru where eight different species of tomatoes still grow in the wild. They were first brought to Central America and domesticated by the Aztec who grew a yellow form of the cherry tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum var. cerasiforme), which they mixed with peppers and salt to create the first salsas.
They named these little fruits xitomatl, which means “plump thing with a navel.” Subsequent Central American tribes renamed them tomati, and they were brought to Europe by Spanish and Italian explorers ranging from Hernando Cortez to Christopher Columbus.
When the tomato first arrived in Europe, it was viewed with suspicion. Tomatoes are members of the nightshade family (Solanaceae) and their foliage is similar to deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), a well-known poisonous plant that was used as a hallucinogenic drug and beauty aid. It was fashionable in medieval courts for women to dilate their pupils with drops of belladonna. When taken as a hallucinogen, the drug induced visions and a feeling of flying associated with the practice of witchcraft.
To make matters worse, the upper class ate on pewter plates that contained a high lead content. High in acid, tomatoes would cause the lead to leach out resulting in poisoning. The first tomatoes, named pomi d’oro (golden apple) by the Italians, were thought to be inedible; they were viewed as ornamental plants. Only the lower class, who ate on wooden plates, consumed the fruits.
By the 18th century, the tomato had finally cast off its bad reputation, although its botanical name, Lycopersicon esculentum, encapsulates it dubious history. Lycopersicon means “wolf peach,” which harkens back to its association with witchcraft, werewolves and poison, while esculentum means “edible.”
Some tomatoes, particularly heirloom varieties, have colorful histories. One favorite is the story of Charlie Byles, a radiator repairman who, during the Great Depression, turned his attention to hybridizing tomatoes. His goal was to hybridize a tomato that could feed a family of six. A novice grower, “Radiator Charlie” crossed four of the largest tomatoes that he could find to breed a monster tomato.
By the1940s, Charlie was selling seedlings of his new tomato for $1. People were driving up to 200 miles to buy his tomato that produced 2½ to 4 lb tasty pinkish-red fruits all summer. Within several years, Charlie was able to pay off the mortgage on his home; hence the name of his hefty heirloom, ‘Mortgage Lifter’.
Sometimes the name of the heirlooms reveals either the grower or hybridizer such as ‘ Livingston's Perfection’ or ‘Aunt Ruby’s Green German’; it often alludes to its site of origin such as ‘Amish Paste’ or ‘Arkansas Traveler’.
You often see tomatoes described as ‘Determinate’ (D) or ‘Indeterminate’ (I). Determinate tomatoes tend to be fairly compact plants that often require minimal staking. They mature to a determined size (generally 4 feet) and their fruits tend to mature in a relatively short time span (approximately 6 weeks). Indeterminate tomatoes will grow as big as you let them. They will produce fruit as long as the weather co-operates, often well into October in the New York area.
Tomatoes can often be hybrids (F1 hybrids) or open-pollinated. Hybrids were created to produce a higher yield and better uniformity (e.g., nice, perfectly shaped, round fruit). However, if you save the seeds and try to grow them the following year, you will not get the same tomato. These hybrids (crosses) are not stable.
Open-pollinated tomatoes are generally self-pollinating tomatoes that will come true to seed. One advantage of these tomatoes is that they have been grown in specific regions and have adapted to their local climates. Heirlooms fall into this category and are known for an incredible variety of color, shape and delicious flavor.
There are many types of tomatoes to choose from and they all have distinctive features. There are currently tomatoes that are minuscule; cherry tomatoes that are as sweet as candy; paste tomatoes that are wonderful for cooking and sun-drying; medium-sized tomatoes that are wonderful for tossing into a salad; and beefsteak tomatoes that are ideal for sandwiches.
The list gets even longer with heirlooms when you realize there are peach tomatoes that have a fuzzy coating, bell pepper tomatoes that posses a hollow cavity for stuffing, oxheart tomatoes that are plump and tapered at the end and ribbed tomatoes that are a work of art.
The varieties of tomatoes available on the market are endless. You will find young transplants for sale in garden centers and at farmer’s markets. Seeds and transplants are available from catalog companies and specialty growers. Seeds are available in garden centers, supermarkets and in a variety of retail outfits.
Find your favorite varieties and grow them as staples. Always leave a little space in the garden, if possible, to experiment with a few new varieties. Good record keeping will ensure that you keep track of the varieties that not only grow well in your area, but also the ones that both look and taste good to your family.