Origin of Species of Corn, Potatoes, and Tomatoes – and Some Other Interesting History
By Jan Cashman • Posted on January, 7th 2012
Ever wonder where the vegetables we eat and grow in our gardens came from? The plants had to originate somewhere. Thousands of years ago when people simply gathered wild fruits and vegetables for food, these plants were found naturally growing in the wild. Then, some 11,000 years ago, people began to domesticate these wild fruits and vegetables and eventually improve upon them.
Corn is thought to have originated somewhere in Mexico, though the wild form is extinct. As far as we know, the native people then domesticated corn, which became the most important cultivated plant in ancient America, used by the native North Americans and Incas in the Andes of South America. Columbus brought corn from North America to Europe.
The botanical name for corn, which you will recognize if you read seed catalogs, is Zea mays. In North America, another word for corn is “maize”. (The word “corn” has different meanings in different countries—in England the word means wheat, in Ireland and Scotland, barley or oats.) There are many subspecies of corn, the most familiar of which are dent (the mostly commonly cultivated, also called ‘field corn’), flint corn (Indian corn with colored kernels), popcorn, and sweet corn. Corn has a huge diversity of uses besides human food including livestock feed, ethanol, and in making whiskey, cosmetics, and bioplastics.
All the corn grown commercially in the United States is hybridized. But open-pollinated (i.e. not a hybrid) varieties of sweet corn seed such as Fisher’s Earliest, developed by Ken Fisher of Belgrade, for vegetable gardens are available from some garden seed companies.
Potatoes were first cultivated in the mountainous regions of Peru and Bolivia 3000 to 7000 years ago, where they are thought to have originated. The Incas learned to dehydrate and mash potatoes into a substance that would store for years called chunu, therefore, potatoes became a staple crop there.
The British naturalist, Darwin, during his scientific expedition to Patagonia in the 1830’s, wrote about the potato: “It is remarkable that the same plant should be found on the sterile mountains of central Chile, where a drop of rain does not fall for more than six months, and within the damp forests of the southern islands.” In other words, the potato was adaptable and easy to grow. Potatoes are also highly nutritious, containing vitamin C and B vitamins, potassium, besides carbohydrates and fiber.
In 1570, the Spanish brought the potato from Peru to Spain. Europeans were leery of its ugly appearance and bland taste so, at first, the potato was used for livestock feed, but eventually, because of food shortages, it gained popularity as a palatable vegetable. When the European diet expanded to include potatoes, farmers were able to produce more nutritious food on smaller plots of land, which helped European birth rates and population to increase. Even though they originated in the Western Hemisphere, potatoes were not grown and eaten by the North American colonists until 1620 when they were sent over from England. Thomas Jefferson made them popular by serving them to his guests at the White House.
Montana has a history of raising potatoes commercially. Gallatin, Beaverhead, and Madison Counties are important producers of high quality certified seed potatoes for several reasons: Our cool climate has fewer insects which carry diseases. Our short season produces a small potato, best sold for seed. Our hard winters kill off viruses in the soil. And, we are isolated from other potato growing areas which helps keep diseases out. Montana State University has been a big factor in establishing and carrying out the detailed inspection process needed to certify seed potatoes. Farm families such as the Schutters and Weidenaars in the close-by communities of Churchill-Amsterdam-Manhattan have grown certified seed potatoes, mostly Russett Burbank, for as many as four generations.
Tomatoes are native to South America, in fact, several species are still found growing wild in the Andes. Brought to Mexico, tomatoes were domesticated and cultivated there by 500 BC. It is thought that the first cultivated tomato was small and yellow. Columbus and/or Cortez brought tomatoes to Europe and the Spanish explorers took them throughout the world. The tomato became popular in Spain by the early 17th century, where it thrived in the Mediterranean climate and became a staple food. When first introduced in England at the end of the 16th Century, it was thought to be poisonous. (The tomato belongs to the nightshade family—some plants in this family are poisonous.) Finally, by the mid-18th century, the tomato had gained acceptance and was widely eaten in England and the North American colonies.
Studies have shown that Italians live longer on their diet which includes plenty of tomatoes, olive oil, and red wine. The nutritious tomato is low in calories but high in vitamins A and C, potassium, and the valuable antioxidant lycopene. Older tomato cultivars (heirlooms) are not always smooth-skinned but may have bumps or ribs and are not always red, but sometimes yellow, orange, pink, purple, or black. These old cultivars have the delicious tomato flavor you cannot find in commercially bred varieties purchased in the grocery store. Stupice, a favorite of ours from Czechoslovakia, or Belii Naliv, a John Austin pick from Russia are two good heirloom tomatoes to try in your garden.
The Western Hemisphere is not only the origin of corn, potatoes, and tomatoes, but also squash and pumpkins. Carrots, probably purple at first, were from Afghanistan. Beans are thought to have been found in both the Western Hemisphere and the Mid-East. Onions have been cultivated in Asia for thousands of years. Wild onions were used by the Native Americans. Broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage didn’t occur in nature at all, but were bred from kale.
So, when you plant your vegetable garden next spring, think about where those seeds came from and the history that has gone into getting them to you.
Alvin (Jun Young) Choi
Professor Ristaino & Professor Hong
29 June 2018
History of the Tomato in Italy and China
The history of tomatoes in Chinese and Italian cuisine is a surprisingly short but still interesting one. Two of my favorite dishes, spaghetti allo scoglio (seafood pasta) and 番茄紅燒牛肉麵(tomato beef noodle soup), are both defined by how they use tomatoes in similar but radically different ways. The subtle distinctions in taste, texture, and appearance in each dish create flavor experiences that are distinct and memorable. In the case of spaghetti allo scoglio and other Italian dishes, tomatoes are one of the central ingredients in Italy’s cuisine and are a significant part of its worldwide popularity. However, the use of tomato sauce with pasta is a relatively recent innovation, only beginning in the late 19th century. Similarly, tomatoes were previously limited to a summertime staple in Chinese cuisine, though they are currently gaining popularity due to their incorporation into many popular dishes, such as the aforementioned tomato beef noodle soup. The changing role of tomatoes in both Italian and Chinese cuisine is a reflection of how tomatoes themselves have been viewed throughout the centuries. The production, distribution, and consumption of tomatoes have all undergone radical changes over the years due to improving technology and changing cultural mores, ultimately resulting in the predominant role that they now have. From a shunned vegetable that was once associated with Satanism, tomatoes have taken center stage in Italian cuisine and are becoming an increasingly important part of Chinese cuisine, changes that will no doubt accelerate in the years to come.
The late entrance of the tomato into Italian cuisine is partially explained by the fact that the plant is not native to Italy, or to Europe for that matter. Tomatoes originated in the New World, beginning as a wild plant found in Ecuador, Peru, and northern Chile, eventually migrating north, where the Mayans and Aztecs modified them into larger, more edible varieties. It is from the Aztecs that the name “tomato” was fashioned, from their word for the plant, “tomatl.” Tomatoes entered the European consciousness following the conquest of the Aztecs by Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, as colonists procured samples of the strange new vegetable and sent them home. Tomatoes reached Italy in 1548, where they were given a chilly-but-curious reception at first due to their unusual qualities. They were initially associated with eggplants, another foreign vegetable that had been introduced to Europe from abroad, in this case from the Middle East. Much like tomatoes, it took hundreds of years for eggplants to become an accepted ingredient in the Italian diet, and both vegetables were believed to cause malign effects to the body. Because European colonists were not interested in learning about the cuisines of the New World peoples they conquered, they lacked the proper knowledge on how to prepare tomatoes, potatoes, and other New World crops to make them edible and tasty. This was a significant reason why it took so long for the tomato to gain traction in Italian cuisine. Further compounding the problems with the tomato’s acceptance was a general distrust of vegetables by Renaissance dieticians. Many dieticians and botanists advised against consuming vegetables due to the belief that they harmed the body and sapped vitality from the human mind. While there is little evidence to suggest that this kept most Italians from consuming vegetables they were already familiar with, it did little to aid the introduction of tomatoes into the Italian diet. Tomatoes were nicknamed the “devil’s fruit” due to their red appearance and the belief that they were responsible for causing illnesses and food poisoning. At the time, Italian cuisine was also defined by strict separations in regards to class and location, with different social strata and different regions preferring different types of vegetables. The wealthy classes in Italy were more experimental with their diets, often trying out different types of vegetables—including tomatoes—before these habits filtered down to the lower classes.
At the beginning of the 18th century, the tomato began to acquire increasing significance in the Italian diet due to changing cultural mores and dietary practices. Breakthroughs in dietary science showed that tomatoes, when properly cooked and prepared, were an essential source of nutrition, capable of aiding the digestion of foods. However, it was not until the 19th century that many of the staple tomato dishes of Italy began to emerge. The 19th century saw the rise of nationalism across Europe, as various subjugated peoples sought to throw off the shackles of old empires. Italy was a major flashpoint for nationalist uprisings, and the tomato rapidly developed into a unifying symbol of Italian cuisine, distinguishing it from the neighboring French and Austrians. The Italian national flag, which incorporated red as part of a tricolor design, helped reinforce the tomato as a major staple in the Italian diet. Indeed, a great many Italian dishes developed around this time deliberately incorporated red, white, and green colors as a way of reinforcing national pride. For example, spaghetti al pomodoro, pizza margherita, and insalata caprese each rely on tomatoes to provide the red in the red-white-green trio. In combination with the rise of Italian nationalism, Italian immigration to the U.S. and other New World countries helped spread Italian cuisine—and its tomato-based character—around the planet.
The role of tomatoes in Chinese culture has followed a similar trajectory to their introduction in Italy. Tomatoes arrived in China sometime in the late 16th or early 17th centuries, where they initially met a reaction that was equal parts confused and curious. Tomatoes were labeled “foreign eggplants” due to their superficial resemblance to eggplants and were initially viewed with skepticism. The Register of Flowers《群芳谱》written in 1621 records: “Fan Persimmon, a June persimmon, is a type of persimmon that is four or five feet tall, has leaves like celery wormwood and knots of four or five… originated from the West, hence the name.” — the word “fan” of tomato originates from its foreign origin. Over time, tomatoes won greater acceptance in Chinese cooking and found a niche in certain Chinese cuisines, though not to the degree with which they became ubiquitous in Italy. In particular, the invention of stir-fried tomato and scrambled eggs was a breakthrough in Chinese culinary development, placing the tomato front and center in China’s dietary revolution.
Scrambled eggs with tomatoes are an ordinary dish in many families. In China, scrambled eggs have a history of at least two thousand years. The book Qimin Yaoshu《齊民要術》written by Jia Weijun of the Northern Wei Dynasty recorded the practice of scrambled eggs at the time: “(The egg) was broken, and the yellow and white were mixed. Fine white onion, salt rice, glutinous rice, sesame oil.” Although scrambled have such a long history, the method of scrambling eggs was not popular. It was also in the Ming Dynasty that tomatoes came to China. About the first time in the Wanli Period of the Ming Dynasty, Looking through the historical data of this period, what we often see is that the ancients described tomatoes as “red and round, cute and lovely,” but they have not been able to establish any connection with eggs and tomatoes. Until the 1880s, when the Qing Dynasty was in the Guangxu period, the evaluation of tomatoes in various localities was still “playable” and “inedible.” By the end of the Qing Dynasty and the beginning of the Republic of China, there were more western restaurants in the country. Tomatoes were widely used as food ingredients in Western food; they were involved in the farmers around the city where the western restaurant was located, trying to grow tomatoes and sell them to Western restaurants. From the perspective of climate in all parts of the country, there are many places suitable for planting tomatoes. Therefore, tomato cultivation has begun to spread in the suburbs of some cities, and tomatoes have gradually entered the recipes of the country; this conditioned the grounds for the stir-fry tomato and scrambled eggs. Traditional Chinese chefs did not accept Western-style dishes at first, and tomatoes were viewed as an ingredient for Western food. In the 1920s and 1930s, some Chinese restaurants that dared began to mix Chinese and Western cuisine. Because tomatoes are widely used in western foods as tomato sauces, most of the Chinese and Western combination dishes in this period used tomato sauce, such as peach blossom, shrimp, chrysanthemum and so on. In 1935, Lao She, a Chinese novelist, wrote two small articles “Tomato” 《西红柿》and “Talking about Tomatoes” 《再谈西红柿》. Although the main idea of these two articles does not provide methods of eating tomatoes, valuable information can be gained from them: suburban farmers sell most of the tomatoes to western restaurants, and the price is also low. At that time, the method of eating tomatoes was nothing more than raw and cooked. When the tomatoes were eaten raw, there were “green smells.” Many people were not used to it. It is worth noting that Mr. Lao She still did not mention tomato scrambled eggs at this time. The tomato dishes he listed in the article are tomato shrimps based on tomato sauce. However, through Mr. Lao She’s article, we can judge that the birth of scrambled eggs from tomatoes is very close, not only because the article reflects that Chinese food has accepted tomatoes, and more importantly, the price of tomatoes is low and sufficient. These were critical conditions for an ordinary dish.
Real tomato scrambled eggs, which appeared around the 1940s. During the Anti-Japanese War, Mr. Wang Zengqi was studying at the Southwest Associated University. He lived in Kunming for seven years before and after. He had eaten real tomato scrambled eggs in local restaurants. “Scramble eggs, fry tomatoes until broken, still fragrant, not weak, eggs into large pieces, not dead. Tomatoes and eggs are mixed, the color is still distinct.” The memoirs written by Mr. Wang Zengqi in the past decades can still make the color and aroma of the scrambled eggs of tomatoes come to us through words. That is, since the 1940s, the home-cooked dish of tomato scrambled eggs has officially appeared. In the following 70 years, it has swept China’s land. Although the appearance of scrambled eggs with tomatoes has gone through two thousand years of waiting and 40,000 miles of encounters, it is still worthwhile to think of its color, nutrition, cheapness, and convenience. Consumption of tomatoes in China was fueled by scientific research showing that eating them can reduce the risk of certain types of cancers. Tomato contains antioxidant lycopene, which can prevent prostate cancer. Some research have also extracted substances from tomatoes to treat high blood pressure.
Italian and Chinese cuisine are both defined by their use of tomatoes, which produces superficially similar but radically different results. Both Italians and Chinese use tomatoes as part of noodle dishes, but the exact structure of these dishes is considerably different. Italian noodles, known as pasta, are known for their strong, earthy taste, one that is paired well with tomato sauce and tomatoes in general. Pasta also comes in many different shapes and sizes, meaning that anyone can find a type of pasta that appeals to them. In contrast, Chinese noodles are more uniform and tend to have a sweeter, weaker taste. This is because Chinese cuisine focuses on making all ingredients included blend into a harmonious whole, rather than having one or two ingredients stand out. The use of tomatoes in Chinese dishes is part of this: they are used more sparingly compared to Italian dishes, designed to complement rather than overpower the dish as a whole. Because tomatoes lack the significance in Chinese culture that they hold in Italian culture—as a symbol of nationalism—tomatoes are not used to the degree that they are in Italy. The cuisines of both nations also feature strong variation depending on the region. In the case of Italy, there is a general shift in culture going from north to south, where northern cuisine tends to be blander and more “Germanic” while the southern and Sicilian cuisine is spicier. This is due to the differing cultural traditions of these parts of Italy: Sicily and southern Italy were profoundly influenced by the Arabs and Middle Easterners, while Austrians and Germans influenced northern Italians. Similar shifts in taste can be seen in Chinese cuisine, where dishes from southern provinces and cities are known to be spicier than those from the north. These regional differences are the result of cultural separation and climate and have played an integral role in the depth and extensiveness of each nation’s cuisine.
It is hard to believe that tomatoes, at one point, were utterly unknown in both Italy and China. Tomatoes have influenced the cuisines of both nations to such a degree that it is incomprehensible how their dishes would have developed without the fruits. Ultimately, tomatoes remain some of the most popular items on the menu for many people of the world, and in the case of Italians and Chinese, tomatoes have become a staple item that has taken on a significance beyond mere sustenance. Tomatoes, for both nations, are a symbol of national pride, cultural excellence, and culinary refinement. It is clear that the popularity of tomatoes in both nations will not only endure, but new permutations of the vegetable will continue to appear, further evolving their cuisines and refining them for the benefit of hungry people everywhere.
Gentilcore, D. (2010). Pomodoro!: A history of the tomato in Italy. New York: Columbia University Press.
She, L. (n.d.). Tomato 《西红柿》. Retrieved from http://www.bwsk.com/mj/l/laoshe/zw14/084.htm
Shi, S. (1962). A preliminary survey of the book Chi min yao shu: An agricultural encyclopaedia of the 6th century. Peking: Science Press.
Yu, H., & Xiao, D. (2015). Sheng wu xun gu: Sheng wu li shi yu sheng wu ke ji. Beijing Shi: Xian dai chu ban she.
『怪奇物种』西红柿炒鸡蛋的历史，可以追溯到抗战时期. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.guokr.com/post/817857/
The Tomato Had To Go Abroad To Make Good
0ne of the strangest things about the history of the tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum) is the fact that, although it is of American origin, it was unknown as food in this country until long after it was commonly eaten in Europe. Until hardly more than a hundred years ago it was generally thought to be poisonous in the United States. Long before it was considered here as fit to eat, it was grown only as an ornamental garden plant, sometimes called “love apple.”
The mistaken idea that tomatoes were poisonous probably arose because the plant belongs to the Nightshade family, of which some species are truly poisonous. The strong, unpleasant odor of the leaves and stems also contributed to the idea that the fruits were unfit for food.
Our word “tomato” is but a slight modification of tomati, the word used by the Indians of Mexico, who have grown the plant for food since prehistoric times. Other names reported by early European explorers were tomatl, tumatle, and tomatas, probably variants of Indian words.
In Their Native Andes, Tomatoes Grow Wild
Cultivated tomatoes apparently originated as wild forms in the Peru-Ecuador-Bolivia area of the Andes. Moderate altitudes in that mountainous land abound today in a wide range of forms of tomato, both wild and cultivated. The cultivated tomato is very tender to cold and also rather intolerant of extremely hot or dry weather, a characteristic reflecting the nature of the climate in which it originated.
Presumably the cultivated species of tomato was carried from the slopes of the Andes northward into Central America and Mexico in the same way as maize, by a prehistoric migration of Indians. Since few primitive forms of tomato are found in Central America and Mexico compared with the number in South America, this probably occurred in relatively recent times-perhaps in the last two thousand years.
Because of the highly perishable nature of the fruit, it seems likely that the tomato was among the last of the native American species to be adopted as a cultivated food plant by the Indians and that it remained of little importance until after the arrival of the white man. Lack of evidence of its use by North American Indians further suggests its rather late movement from South America.
For more than 200 years after 1554, when the first known record of the tomato was written, it was being gradually carried over the globe. European writers mentioned seeing it in far places, but not in what is now the United States.
Italians first grew the tomato about 1550 and apparently were the first Europeans to eat it. About 25 years later it was grown in English, Spanish, and mid-European gardens as a curiosity, with little or no interest in it then as food. The French gave it the name pomme d’amour; hence the English and early American term “love apple.”
One early Italian writer called the tomato poma Peruviana, suggesting that it was introduced from Peru. Another called it poma d’oro, or “gold apple,” indicating that the earliest introductions were yellow-fruited. By the middle of the 18th century the tomato was grown for food extensively in Italy and to some extent in many European countries.
Thomas Jefferson Grew Tomatoes
Not until after the Declaration of Independence do we find any record of the tomato as being grown by white men in this country. Thomas Jefferson, a remarkably progressive Virginia farmer as well as a statesman, grew it in 1781. It was supposedly introduced to Philadelphia by a French refugee from Santo Domingo in 1789 and to Salem, Massachusetts, in 1802 by an Italian painter.
Tomatoes were used as food in New Orleans as early as 1812, doubtless through French influence; but it was another 20 to 25 years before they were grown for food in the northeastern part of the country. Many persons now living recall being told that tomatoes were poisonous.
The various shapes and colors of tomatoes known today in the United States were found in America by the earliest explorers. Plant breeders have improved the size and smoothness of the fruit and the productivity of the plants, but have introduced nothing basically new in form or color.
As a food of world-wide importance, the tomato is about the newest. It has been cultivated and bred so assiduously in Europe that European varieties are now contributing important characters to the improvement of the crop in the United States. Italy has long been famous for its excellent tomato paste, made from small, oblong, rich, red tomatoes; and spaghetti is hardly spaghetti without tomato sauce.
After having made good abroad, the tomato has attained great importance in its native hemisphere. Today, in the United States alone, hundreds of thousands of acres yield millions of tons of tomatoes.
The Tomato History has origins traced back to the early Aztecs around 700 A.D; therefore it is believed that the tomato is native to the Americas. It was not until around the 16th century that Europeans were introduced to this fruit when the early explorers set sail to discover new lands. Throughout Southern Europe, the tomato was quickly accepted into the kitchen, yet as it moved north, more resistance was apparent. The British, for example, admired the tomato for its beauty, but believe that it was poisonous, as its appearance was similar to that of the wolf peach.
(A visitor named David had this to add to the history of the Tomato. Thanks David!)
“…most Europeans thought that the tomato was poisonous because of the way plates and flatware were made in the 1500’s.
Rich people in that time used flatware made of pewter, which has a high-lead content. Foods high in acid, like tomatoes, would cause the lead to leech out into the food, resulting in lead poisoning and death. Poor people, who ate off of plates made of wood, did not have that problem, and hence did not have an aversion to tomatoes. This is essentially the reason why tomatoes were only eaten by poor people until the 1800’s, especially Italians.
What changed in the 1800’s? First, and most significantly, was the mass immigration from Europe to America and the traditional blending of cultures. Many Italian-Americans ate tomatoes and brought that food with them. But also, and perhaps equally as important, was the invention of pizza. There is no pizza without tomato sauce, and pizza was invented around Naples in the late 1880’s. The story goes that it was created by one restaurateur in Naples to celebrate the visit of Queen Margarite, the first Italian monarch since Napoleon conquered Italy. The restaurateur made the pizza from three ingredients that represented the colors of the new Italian flag: red, white, and green. The red is the tomato sauce, the white was the mozzarella cheese, and the green was the basil topping. Hence, Pizza Margarite was born, and is still the standard for pizza. And what could have led more to the popularity of the tomato than pizza!” It was not regarded as a kitchen vegetable until the times preceding The Civil War Period in the United States. From this point forward,tomatoes have become a staple item in the kitchen throughout the world. Each area of the world has its own tomato history and how it is used in everyday dining. It appears though that tomatoes have had the largest impact on American eating habits, as they are responsible for enjoying over 12 million tons of tomatoes each year.
Fruit or Vegetable?
An interesting aspect of tomato history is the classic debate: Is the Tomato a Fruit or Vegetable? I guess that depends on whom you are asking. By definition, a fruit is the edible plant structure of a mature ovary of a flowering plant, usually eaten raw; some are sweet like apples, but the ones that are not sweet such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, etc. are commonly called vegetables. Botanists claim that a fruit is any fleshy material that covers a seed or seeds where as a horticulturists point of view would pose that the tomato is a vegetable plant. Until the late 1800’s the tomato was classified as a fruit to avoid taxation, but this was changed after a Supreme Court ruling that the tomato is a vegetable and should be taxed accordingly.
When it is all said and done, the history of the tomato has classified as a poisonous beautiful plant, a tax-avoiding fruit, and a taxable vegetable. Nonetheless, the tomato is the most popular vegetable in America and enjoyed by millions all over the world.
I rarely write about toxic plants because this site is about edibles. However there are enough prickly nightshades around to justify an article about them and how to identify them even if they aren’t edible.
Red Soda Apple, photo by Hugh Nicholson, rainforest publishing.
The Red Soda Apple, Solanum capsicoides, might be a native Floridian. Botanists can’t agree. It is now found in most warm areas of the world. Outside of North America S. capsidoides is often confused with Solanum aculeastissimum. Or… botanists being what they are… S. aculeastissimum and S. capsidoides might be the same species, or a close variation. At any rate it is a thorny, large-leafed plant to a yard high with spines all over it including the leaves, which can be shiny. The round green fruit resemble a striped water melon. When ripe it is red and slightly smaller than a ping-pong ball. One is safe saying the fruit is not edible because it certainly is toxic at some stage. Yet, one can find snippets of references here and there to the opposite. Usually they say the ripe flesh is edible but not the skin nor seeds which have the highest concentration of toxins. If the flesh is eaten it is only in small amounts. Loaded with steroids and precursors of steroid hormones it has been associated with abortions and other things steroids can do to your body. Ripe cut fruit is used as cockroach bait. Some botanists would argue S. aculeastissimum is African and all the nasty stuff is about that plant not S. capsicoides which they say is Brazilian. It is a dangerous family and best avoided. The easy answer is the Red Soda Apple is not edible. That is my position until someone can demonstrated in person otherwise.
Tropical Soda Apple, photo by Northcoast Weeds
The Tropical Soda Apple, Solanum viarum, is similar to the Red Soda Apple except its fruit turns bright yellow when ripe. And if I remember correctly the riper the fruit gets the more toxic it gets. And while it is similar-looking to the Red Soda Apple it’s oak-shaped leaves are dull green, never shiny. A lot more is written about the Tropical Soda Apple. For a toxic plant cattle and feral hogs spread the plant’s seeds around in their droppings. Growing to six feet high it has thorns on the tops sides of the leaves, underside of the leaves and all along the stem. It can grow year around as long as it stays warm. The blossoms are creamy white with petals and a yellow center. Its sweet-smelling fruit is one inch in diameter containing up to 400 brown seeds. The plant can produce some 50,000 seeds a year. They think its seeds came to south Florida in the tummies of cattle from Brazil around 1988. It became such an invasive that some ranchers were spending as much as 40% of their working time on controlling the plant costing some $16 million in 2007 dollars. Biological controls were implemented in 2003 with the release of Gratiana boliviana a beetle that only eats Tropical Soda Apple. It is currently found in Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Pennsylvania. All reports say it is toxic. Avoid it.
Horse Nettles, photo by Illinois Wildflowers
Horsenettle, Solanum Carolinense, is similar looking to the Tropical Soda Apple but is a smaller plant. The Tropical Soda Apple has larger leaves and long thorns and is more shrubby. Horsenettle flowers can be purple or white where Tropical Soda Apple has only white blossoms. And while the Horsenettle also has yellow fruit they tend to be wrinkled when ripe. The Horsenettle also has a potato-like odor when a leaf is crushed and the leaf stems are are covered with star-shaped hairs. Yellow fruits are half-enclosed in a paper calyx. The Horsenettle is found in most of the United States and Eastern Canada. It skips Nevada, Colorado, North Dakota, Montana and all of Canada west of Ontario. Not edible. A close relative, the Robust Horsenettle (Solanum dimidiatum) which has rounder leaves than the Horsenettle, also is not edible.
Aquatic Soda Apple, photo by Invasive.Org
The Aquatic Tropical Apple, Solanum tampicense, typically prefers wetlands. Much of southwest Florida have been invaded by it. Once established, it forms large, tangled, dense stands along river banks, cypress swamps, open marsh, and relatively undisturbed wetlands. It’s native to the West Indies, Mexico, and Central America and blooms in the fall. A straggly, sprawling prickly shrub, woody below, herbaceous above, has green stems to 16 feet long. Leaves: Alternate, simple, leafs longer than wide, 10-inches wide, three inches wide deeply round-indented edges, recurved or straight prickles on veins, and stellate hairs. Flowers are small, three to 11 individual flowers in stalked, branched clusters at leaf axils. Petals are white; stamens with yellow anthers held closely and erect in center of flower. Fruit: A small, spherical, tomato-like berry to almost half-an-inch, shiny solid green turning orange then bright red at maturity, with 10 to 60 yellowish, flat-round seeds. Not edible.
Nipplefruit, photo by Prota4u
Among the more unusual prickly non-edibles is the Nipplefruit Nightshade, Solanum mammosum. While it is naturalized in Puerto Rico it also escaped from back yards in peninsula Florida south coastal Texas. I’m not quite sure why one would plant it. Not edible, prickly, and irregular in flowering and fruiting. The fruit contains solanine saponine, mallic and gallic acids, and solamargine, a glycoalkaloid. It is purgative. There is one Malaysian report that the unripe fruit is edible. I’d have to see it to believe it. The plant resembles a thorny eggplant but can grow to the size of a small tree.
The Jamaican Nightshade (Solanum jamaicense) is found in only a few central Florida counties. It’s a prickly, perennial, invasive shrub in central and southern peninsular Florida and was first seen in the state in 1930 near St. Cloud. Jamaican nightshade is usually found in woodlands where it can dominant the understory. Occasionally it grows in isolated patches in the open. Like other nightshades in this article it is armed with short curved spines. Leaves are in subequal pairs, with dense stellate hairs, somewhat diamond-shaped, flowers white, yellow anthers; fruit is an red-orange berry to about a third of an inch.
The Toxic Buffalobur. photo by FireflyForest
Very few people would mistake the Buffalobur, Solanum rostratum, as edible but it is a prickly, toxic nightshade often seen. The small fruit is totally encased in a spiny calyx. It is an erect, branching annual found in fields, pastures, fence rows, roadsides and wastes sites. The leaves have with prominent white veins. The plants, especially the leaves and green fruit, are poisonous and contain the glycoalkaloid solanine as well as other tropane alkaloids. The plants can also accumulate toxic levels of nitrates from the soil. Stinging or Itching – The numerous sharp spines on the plants and burs can cause intense, lingering pain if touched. Animals are also affected, and even after the burs are removed, dogs will continue to lick and chew on their feet because of the pain.
Before we move on to an edible prickly nightshade, why the term “soda apple?” Soda through Middle English, Middle French and Middle Latin is probably from the Arabic word Suwwad (saltwort) which was a plant alkaloids were gotten from perhaps for soap making. And most of these non-edible plants have alkaloids. So instead of thinking Soda Apple or Tropical Soda Apple think Alkaloid Apple, a good reason to avoid said. Lastly there is one local prickly Solanum that is a tomato and definitely edible, the Litchi tomato. To read more about it go here. There is also a lesser edible, the Turkey Berry, read about it go here.
Tomatoes originate from the Andes in South America, where they grow wild in what is now Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador. They were first cultivated by the Aztecs and Incas as early as 700 AD.
The English word ‘tomato’ comes from the Aztec word, tomatl.
Tomatoes first arrived in Europe in the 16th Century, although how they got here is unclear. Some say that they were brought back from Central America by Spanish Conquistadors, while another legend suggests that two Jesuit priests brought them to Italy from Mexico.
The first cultivated tomatoes were yellow and cherry-sized, earning them the name golden apples: pommes d’or in French, pomi d’oro in Italian and goldapfel in German. The Italian for tomatoes today is pomodoro.
The Latin name for the cultivated tomato is Lycopersicon, or ‘wolf peach’, no doubt a reflection of the long-held belief that the tomato was poisonous; tomatoes were originally grown in Britain and the rest of Europe for their decorative leaves and fruit. (We would not advise anyone to eat the leaves or stalks of tomato plants).
The French were convinced tomatoes had aphrodisiac properties and called them pommes d’amour or love apples.
It was not until the 19th Century that commercial tomato cultivation began. The first glasshouses were built in Kent and Essex time, after large-scale production of sheet glass was developed.
Tomatoes are now the most widely grown ‘vegetable’ in the world and are cultivated as far north as Iceland and as far south as the Falkland Islands. Tomato seedlings have even been grown in Space and tomato seeds, which spent six years circling the earth in a satellite, have been compared with others which had stayed at home. No significant differences were found in the growth of plants from the two lots of seed.
Travelers come to the city of Trujillo in northwestern Peru for its elegant plazas, unsullied colonial architecture, nearby archaeological riches and even the ultrafresh local catch of its ceviche restaurants. I, however, journeyed to Trujillo in search of a sprawling, scraggly vine.
It is known to botanists as Solanum pimpinellifolium, or simply “pimp.” The plant is the wild ancestor of all the tomatoes we eat today, and still grows wild in northern Peru and southern Ecuador. And although you may never have occasion to nibble one of its tiny red fruits, no bigger than a shelled pea, you owe this humble, untamed species a debt of gratitude every time you enjoy a spicy red sauce or slurp the sweettart juices of a summer beefsteak from the garden. “If it wasn’t for the genes of these wild species, you wouldn’t be able to grow tomatoes in a lot of areas,” Roger Chetelat, a renowned tomato expert at the University of California, Davis, told me before my trip to Trujillo.
Although you’d never know it from the colorful cornucopia on display at any farmers’ market on a summer Saturday, all modern domestic tomatoes (known botanically as Solanum lycopersicum) are remarkably similar. Taken together, they possess no more than 5 percent of the total genetic variation present within the wild species and primitive varieties. The domestic tomato’s progenitor has the other 95 or more percent. Modern tomatoes may taste good and offer eye appeal, but they lack many genes that allow them to fight disease and survive drought.
By contrast, the pimps and about a dozen other tomato relatives that grow wild in western South America are a tough crew, adapted to survive without the help of farmers in dramatically different climates: from some of the driest, harshest desert landscapes in the world to humid, rain forest lowlands to chilly alpine slopes. As far as we know, the inhabitants of the region never domesticated them. But a thousand miles to the north, the pre-Columbian residents of what is now southern Mexico set about planting and cultivating them, saving the seeds of those that bore the biggest, tastiest fruits and crossing desirable plants with one another. Distance prevented these early farmers from crossbreeding their new varieties with the original populations.
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Domesticated tomatoes may have been more palatable, but they lacked the tenacity of the ones left behind in South America. And they grew more inbred when Spanish explorers brought a few seeds from present-day Mexico to Europe, further separating tomatoes from their ancestral roots. The tomatoes grown today in the United States and elsewhere are offspring of those European strains.
Beginning in the 1940s and 1950s, botanists started correcting this problem by crossbreeding the tough untamed species with domesticated cultivars to give them the immunity and vigor of their wild relatives. Pimps alone supplied genetic traits that allow tomatoes to resist devastating fungal diseases such as late blight, verticillium wilt and fusarium wilt.
Researchers found the wild tomatoes to be so valuable that they launched expeditions to western South America to collect seeds and preserve them in climate-controlled repositories such as UC Davis’s C. M. Rick Tomato Genetics Resource Center, which Chetelat heads. The center acts like a bank, sharing its more than 3,800 specimens with breeders and scholars around the world. Like any bank, it needs a steady stream of new deposits to continue operating, and those new deposits have to come from the wild. Over the past few decades, it’s grown harder to find them. According to Chetelat, there are
two main reasons.
One was evident after my driver, Carlos Chávez, left the outskirts of Trujillo and drove north along the Pan American Highway, here a straight ribbon of blacktop that bisects a desert that makes Arizona’s desert look positively lush. We drove for miles without seeing any sign of life—not a tree, shrub, blade of grass, nor even a cactus—on the sandy plain that spread out from the dun-colored peaks of the Andes on one side to a dark gray curtain of fog demarking the cold waters of the Pacific on the other.
We careered through a small town whose single dusty street was congested with moto-taxis, rickety conveyances that look like the offspring of a tryst between a motor scooter and a pedicab. On the far side of town, what had been nothing but unbroken sand became a horizon-to-horizon sea of sugarcane occupying every precious inch of the irrigated fields, right up to the highway’s edge. Chetelat had told me that pimps once thrived along the area’s fencerows, roadsides and ditch banks, but that intensive agricultural production had destroyed their habitat. Any wild tomatoes that managed to find a nook into which to sink their roots, he said, have been killed by herbicides sprayed over the sugarcane fields to kill weeds.
When I told Chávez that Chetelat had given me GPS coordinates for a clump of pimps he’d found on a field trip a few years earlier up in the mountains away from the cane fields, the driver shook his head. He told me that what the locals called tomatillos silvestres (little wild tomatoes) used to grow in the area. He remembered picking them and snacking on them as a boy during visits to his grandparents’ small farm on the outskirts of Trujillo. But it had been years since he’d seen one. “They are all gone,” he said.
The solanum pimpinellifolium measured in millimeters. (Scott Peacock, C.M. Rick Tomato Genetics Resource Center; image cropped)
The second problem facing scientists such as Chetelat is purely political. Beginning in 1992, members of the United Nations approved a treaty called the Convention on Biological Diversity. It established international regulations on the exploitation of genetic resources, including seeds and plants. If researchers from one nation want to use biological resources from another nation, they must first get its consent and fully inform the donor country about what they plan to do with the material. A corporation or university that profits from use of the biological resources must share the money equitably with the country of origin.
Every single member of the UN but one ratified the treaty, the notable exception being the United States. “Before, you could just take the seeds out of the country and distribute them to researchers and breeders,” Chetelat said. “Now you need prior consent to go in and collect. Then you need a separate
permit to export the seeds out of the country. Finally, you have to negotiate an agreement about how you would share any benefits that arise from any seed distribution. It has been impossible to negotiate such agreements with Peru.” Chetelat said he wouldn’t be as concerned if the government of Peru or university scientists there were actively collecting and properly storing wild tomato seeds, similar to the way the country has assembled native potato varieties at its International Potato Center. But Chetelat said that is not being done.
In the meantime, industrial agriculture continues to overtake former pimp habitat. Chetelat is particularly troubled about northern Peru, the area where pimpinellifolium populations are at their most diverse. “With the agricultural development, we’ve already lost populations we wanted to collect. And the worst thing is that we really don’t know what we are losing,” he said.
It was beginning to look as if my quest for pimps was going to be literally fruitless. Chávez and I turned up a narrow secondary road. The flat alluvial plain at the base of the mountains was an oasis crowded with small vegetable farms—corn, potatoes, rice, squash, leafy greens, domestic tomatoes—crosshatched by irrigation canals that channeled glacial runoff from a small river to the thirsty crops. The system has been in place in the area for at least 5,400 years.
After a few miles, the farms disappeared, and the road wound upward through a craggy landscape of sheer cliffs and precipitous valleys. Peruvian highway engineers apparently don’t see the value of guardrails, much to my sweatypalmed terror. But because there were no farms or sugarcane plantations, pimps at least had a chance of finding a spot where they could grow. Just outside Tembladera, a village wedged between the mountains and the turquoise waters of a reservoir, we stopped where my GPS indicated there should have been “a pretty good cluster,” according to field notes Chetelat had scribbled during his earlier expedition. A pretty good cluster of boulders, I thought, seeing no greenery whatsoever. Chávez approached three women who were walking up from town carrying grocery bags. They had a quick exchange that included a lot of head shaking. He came back to the car with the bad news I’d expected: no tomatillos silvestres.
We executed a U-turn and began retracing our route out of the mountains. We’d barely gotten rolling when I caught a flash of yellow out of the corner of my eye. “Stop,” I said, scrambling to get out of the car. There, growing out of a crevice in the rock ledge, was a familiar-looking, jagged-leafed vine spangled with miniature versions of the tomato flowers that bloom during the summer in my garden. Chávez was delighted and began pawing at the vine, stuffing any red berries he encountered into his mouth and repeating, “Tomatillos silvestres, tomatillos silvestres.”
I plucked a red berry, rolled it between my thumb and index finger and tasted. Sure enough, the pimp had the bright, sweet-tart pop of a tomato, but you’d have to pick for hours to get enough to make a salad. Its size belied its botanical importance. Perhaps this one pimpinellifolium, still stubbornly alive on a rock, was a sign of hope. But without the scientific and political will to harness the genetic power of the wild Peruvian tomato, it could just as easily be a sign of impending doom. In the coming decades, domestic tomatoes will doubtless face drought, new diseases, environmental destruction and climate change. To survive, they will need all the genetic resources they can get.
T is for… Tomatoes. Here’s an interesting fact for you: tomatoes don’t come from Italy. They don’t even come from Spain, or Portugal, or Greece. No. Tomatoes are Central American. There were tomatoes in the USA before it even was the USA. And so, maddeningly, they have every right to call them ‘tom-ay-toes’.
It is odd that the tomato, which we think of as so quintessentially Mediterranean, should come from a totally different part of the world. In Mexico, tomatoes have been cultivated since at least 500BC. They were a prized food, associated with the powers of divination and spirit-channelling.
Tomatoes didn’t reach Europe until around 1500, brought back either by Christopher Columbus or the conquistador Hernán Cortés. They reached Spain first, where they were treated as a red aubergine – ie. cooked with salt, pepper and oil, as they are to this day. Gradually they found their way to Italy, and are mentioned by the house steward of Cosimo de’ Medici in a letter of 31st October 1548.
However it took many decades for the Italians to pluck up the courage to eat them. Because they grow close to the ground, they were considered lowly, and less filling than other fruits. And several bitter and poisonous varieties were also off-putting. It wasn’t until the 1690s that a tomato found its way into an Italian recipe; what we think of as a time-immemorial classic of cuisine is actually only a few centuries old. They were pretty, though, and often used as table decorations or grown in ornamental flower beds.
The English were even more cowardly when it came to eating tomatoes. Although they were introduced as a decorative plant in the 1590s, tomatoes didn’t pass British lips until around the 1750s. They were widely believed to be poisonous, thanks largely to a barber-physician (never trust a man who claims to be an expert in more than one thing) called John Gerard. He wrote a Herbal in 1597 dissing the plant, which took 150 years to recover. By 1800, though, the tomato was in almost daily use in England in soups, stews and sauces. The Middle East was last of all to the party, not eating tomatoes until well into the nineteenth century.
As well as their decorative use, tomatoes were used as a weapon. Rotten tomatoes were traditionally thrown at people in the stocks; to this day, the town of Buñol in Spain has a mass tomato fight every year. La Tomatina attracted over 40,000 people in 2007 but an entry fee and health and safety measures have since been introduced. Nevertheless, 145,000kg of tomatoes were chucked in 2015. The town is sparklingly clean once the squished tomatoes have been hosed away as the acidity cleans cobbles and marbles like nothing else.
Although there are more than 7,500 varieties of tomatoes grown, most of them taste watery and flavourless. To have a proper tomato, ripe and warm from the sun, in Italy or in France, is a totally different experience from your average supermarket fruit. Although we eat them and rely on them weekly, it is all too easy to take the tomato for granted. For a relatively new food, it is already utterly commonplace. But it’s worth seeking out the good stuff when you’re abroad, for the pure sweetness and figgy fragrance of its taste. As Pablo Neruda wrote, the tomato has ‘remarkable amplitude / and abundance, / no pit, / no husk, / no leaves or thorns, / the tomato offers / its gift / of fiery colour / and cool completeness.’