Food Crops & Edibles

The Tomato of Today Has Come a Long Way

January and February are traditional months to start tomato plants in the Midwest. There is the thrill of a new garden season just over the hill from winter and a sense of adventure that gets us out of winter doldrums. People have been thinking, writing and obsessing over the red fruit for many years however it wasn’t always like that. Tomatoes are in the family Solanaceae or Nightshade family and one the members is, of course, Deadly Nightshade which is poisonous.

In an article from Modern Farmer Magazine, a brief history of the rise in popularity of the love apple reveals that we have been eating amid growing tomatoes since the middle of the 1800’s. The Livingston Seed Company founded by Alexander Livingston developed 22 varieties of the tomato which are considered Heirlooms today. Canned tomatoes really took off as an American staple during and following the American Civil War. They were quick to grow and easy to can as rations were required by Union Army quartermasters. Before this time it was widely assumed (incorrectly) that tomatoes were poisonous even though they were consumed by non-English speaking cultural groups such as the Spanish and French in America.

The history of tomatoes dates back to 500 BC in South and Central America. The early tomato resembled the grape tomato of today and was either yellow or red. The Spanish Conquest of Mexico introduced the fruit to Europe in the 1500’s and they spread rapidly as their cousins the potato to the rest of the world. A natural mutation in the tomato created the larger fruit that were the parents of the many varieties we have today. China, India and the United States are the 3 biggest growers of tomatoes in metric tons of the crop produced annually.

Everyone who is a fan of gardening knows about or grows the tomato. A changing climate can make growing the tomato more of a challenge, making hoop house and hydroponic propagation a popular alternative to growing strictly outdoors.

Seasonally, in my Zone 5 in the upper Midwest tomato crops rise and fall with the amount of water and the temperature. Some years it is so cold and wet here that the only crops produced are the Cherry tomatoes. I have had some success with the Seed Savers Exchange of Decorah, Iowa that carry types of Russian tomatoes that produce in cooler weather.

Caron Wenzel is an Environmental Educator, writer, and is the owner of Blazing Star Inc. a 2 year old native plant seed nursery and environmental consulting business. Visit her website at

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