The Story of the Tomato

The Story of the Tomato is an interesting one.  Loved by many, tomatoes are easy to grow, come in all shapes and sizes and have an interesting history.

The tomato has had a rocky past. It was once thought to poison people. After all, it is related to the deadly nightshade. Or, was it the common and poisonous pewter plates of mid-evil times that reacted with the acidity of the tomato? The tomato’s decline in popularity can be sensed from its name changes as it went from ‘tomatl’ (Central America) to Pomo D’oro or golden apple (Italy) and then to Wolf Peach (Europe). It was grown only as an ornamental for decades until the early 1800’s in America when the fruit began the resurgence in the kitchen and returned to a version of its original name.

The tomato started in South America where it grew as a weed and was generally ignored.
Eventually, it spread north to Central America where the Mayans farmed and developed tomatoes into a variety of sizes and colours. At this time the tomato flowers had a form that allowed local insects to pick up pollen from its extended stigmas and easily cross-pollinate the plant with other tomato plants and varieties. Conquerors next took the
tomato back to Europe where the usual pollinators were not available. Successive
breeding led the tomato flower to develop a shorter pistil, resulting in a  plant which
self-pollinated allowing for less chance of natural cross-pollination. This change explains why I’ve had to replace two of my Central American heritage varieties, Marvel
Striped and Zapotec, that have lost their characteristic features.

Before I launched into heirloom tomatoes (20 years ago), I thought the red tomato was just that. But I have discovered that some are “pink” and some are “red”. You can find both in your grocery store. Both have red flesh, however, they differ in the colour of their skin. The pink ones have white skin and red ones have yellow skin. The latter are the ones that have that nice warm tomato glow. Next time you go to the grocery store, see if you can tell the difference.

An unripe tomato is green because of active chlorophyll. As the fruit ripens, the chlorophyll degrades and something else develops. In yellow tomatoes,  yellow carotenoids develop, in orange tomatoes, carotenoid is Beta-carotene which is the same as that found in carrots and sweet potatoes.  In red tomatoes, it is red lycopene, also found in watermelon and red peppers that develops. In white tomatoes, the chlorophyll degrades and there is no development of any carotenoid. In a green tomato that is actually ripe when it is green, the chlorophyll does not breakdown. There are a number of varieties that are a deep blue and have been bred from wild Peruvian crosses that owe their colour to
a flavonoid called anthocyanin, also found in blueberries.  In addition to all the vitamins and minerals found in tomatoes, these additional nutrients are great for your body, many laying claims to contributing to eye health, cancer prevention and a healthy heart.

Generally, if tomatoes ripen on the vine, they will have a third more vitamin C. If they are organically grown, i.e.manure and compost fertilizers, they are higher in antioxidants. This is a good reason to grow your own as you can control the growing conditions.

Here are some of my hints for success:

1) Choose heirloom tomatoes for taste and nutrition and the fact that you can save the

2) Start your seeds 6 weeks before the last frost-free date (and perhaps during a waxing moon) in soilless mixture. This can easily be purchased at a hardware store and is usually
called “seed or cutting mix”. Or buy your plants.

3) Transplant young plants into the garden in late May,  “up to the eyeballs” as my father-in-law would say. In actuality, this is up to the bottom of the first true leaves. The stem that is put underground will develop roots along its sides.  I often plant mine on a slant
to allow the new roots to take advantage of the lateral space to grow. It is a good idea to place compost and water in the planting hole.

4) Fertilize every now and then, choosing a fertilizer that has a ratio low in nitrogen
(N), high in Phosphorus (P), and preferably high in potassium (K). I have used many
natural versions of fertilizing. But remember it is best to “feed your soil” as opposed
to feeding just your plants. Rotating tomato beds with nitrogen-fixing crops like
beans is great as well.

5) In late August or so, if you have bushy plants and many green tomatoes, you may
trim off some leaves to let the sun reach the fruit to ripen.

6) If you wish to save your seed and start your plants next year (they must be
an heirloom or at least open-pollinated), it is best to ferment the seeds in water for
about 3 days. Let them get mouldy then rinse them off with a screened sieve and
place on paper to dry. Store dry and cool.

Many facts for this article were taken from the book “How Carrots Won the Trojan War” by Rebecca Rupp. Article authored  by Suzi Gabany,  The Tomato Lady who sells heirloom tomato plants:

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