Growing Tomatoes – Harvesting History And Health

22 Feb

Spaghetti sauce, ketchup, salsa, and soup-none would be the same without tomatoes. It is hard to imagine a life devoid of this delectable fruit. Fruit? Tomatoes are the reproductive part of the tomato plant, so botanically speaking they are fruits. However, for horticultural and culinary purposes, tomatoes are vegetables because they are most often used in savory dishes. Tomatoes were not always so popular, though. They had a rough history from the mountains of Peru to our dining room tables.

Tomatoes in History

Tomato plants originated in the “New World,” or western hemisphere. Most likely originating in Peru, tomatoes were domesticated into the plants we know today in Central America. Hundreds of years of cultivation changed a weedy, seemingly useless plant into a prolific producer of tasty fruit.

Tomato HistoryBrought to the Mediterranean regions by Spanish Conquistadors, and used widely for centuries, it took much longer for Europeans to embrace the tomato. Tomatoes are part of the plant family “Solanaceae,” the potato family. Eggplants, potatoes and tomatoes all share the same genes. The potato family is also the family of deadly nightshade, which contributed to long-held beliefs that tomatoes were poisonous. Tomato plants are similar in appearance to Nightshade plants. Folkloric beliefs relayed that witches used nightshade plants to summon werewolves. The common name for tomatoes was “wolf peach.” Linnaeus, upon adopting and applying the modern day system of bionomial nomenclature, named the tomatoLycopersicon esculentum, which translates as “edible wolf peach.”

Tomatoes were not widely accepted, cultivated and eaten in European and North American countries until the mid-nineteenth century, when the myth of tomatoes as quick avenues to poisoning were put to rest. In the United States, tomato cultivation took off in 1820, when Colonel Robert Johnson ate a basket full of tomatoes in a public square to put to rest rumors of tomatoes’ ill effects. During this time, most people still grew their own vegetables, and eagerly began growing tomatoes in their garden plots. These 19th Century garden plots are where the heirloom varieties of tomatoes, so treasured today, were cultivated, differentiated, and preserved.

Health Benefits of Tomatoes

Once people began growing and harvesting their own tomatoes, there was no stopping the popularity of the vegetable. Tomatoes are great sources of vitamin C and Potassium, each essential nutrients for health. The most celebrated nutrient in tomatoes is Lycopene, the red pigment in tomatoes. Lycopene contributes to health benefits such as reduction in risk of developing many types of cancers. Lutein, another element in tomatoes contributes to health of the retina of the eye, and to heart and vascular health.

Tomatoes are tremendously versatile, and can be eaten cooked or raw, whole or pureed, in salsas, soups, sauces, and in salads. Health benefits are best realized when tomatoes are cooked with a bit of healthy oil. Cooking helps break the cell walls of the plant, releasing nutrients. Healthy oils such as olive oil aid in absorption of vitamins and nutrients in tomatoes.

From their scraggly, weedy and dubious beginnings, tomatoes have become a staple in cultures all over the world. Prized for their flavor and their health benefits, tomatoes are a fixture of modern cuisine.