Historical Background

The genus Lycopersicon of the Solanaceae family is believed to have originated in the coastal strip of western South America, from the equator to about 30° latitude south. The species is native to South America, primarily in Peru and the Galapagos Islands.  It is believed that tomato was first domesticated in Mexico as seeds were taken to Europe from Mexico after Cortez conquered Mexico City in 1519. It was not until 1533 that Peru and Ecuador were conquered by the Spaniards.

Wild tomato plants are still found in the countries between Ecuador and Chile as well as on the Galapagos Islands, although only two have edible fruit, Lycopersicon esculentum (the common tomato in wide cultivation today) and Lycopersicon pimpinellifolium, sometimes cultivated under the name of currant tomato. The small fruited type, Lycopersicon esculentum var. cerasiforme, cultivated under the name of cherry tomato, is widely distributed as a wild plant in the tropics and subtropics.

In the mid-16th century, the tomato was introduced into Europe, primarily featured in early herbals. It was grown for the beauty of its fruit but was not often eaten, except in Italy and Spain. The fruit was thought to be poisonous like its relative, the deadly nightshade. Although native to the New World, the tomato was introduced back into America from Europe in the 18th century, although its importance as a vegetable has occurred only in this century. It is believed that the American Indians ate tomato fruit.

After introduction of the tomato into the United States, it was grown and brought to the table by Thomas Jefferson. George Washington Carver grew and recom-mended the tomato in an attempt to introduce the fruit into the diet among the poor in Alabama whose diets were woefully deficient in vitamins.

The designation of the tomato fruit as “Moor’s apple” (Italian) or “love apple” (French) during the 16th century is unverified, but commonly believed. The color of the fruit first noted in Italy was yellow. By the 18th century, the tomato began to be used as an edible food, although it was still listed as being among the poisonous plants.

The botanical classification of the tomato has had an interesting history, first being placed in the genus Solanum, along with the potato, identified as Solanum lycopersicon. However, this designation was changed to Lycopersicon esculentum, Lycopersicon being derived from the Greek word meaning “wolf peach,” and esculentum simply meaning edible.

Although there are similar plant characteristics between the potato and tomato plant, flower color (yellow for tomato and mostly white or violet for potato) and particularly the shape and manner of the opening of pollen-bearing structures are the characteristics that separate these two plant types.

The Tariff Act of 1883, passed by the United States Congress, set a 10% tax on imported vegetables. A few years later, a vegetable importer took steps to exempt tomato from the tax based on botanical grounds since the tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable. The case went before the Supreme Court in 1893 [Nix vs Hedden, 149 U.S. 304 (1893)]. Justice Gray wrote, “botanically speaking, tomatoes are fruits of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas. But in the common language in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with or after the soup, fish or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as desert.” The court rejected the botanical truth that the tomato is in fact a large sized berry, and deferred to the culinary vernacular of vegetable to describe it.