Tomato planting time has begun. This vegetable has a long history and a strong grip on the American diet and psyche.

Anticipation of picking the season’s first ripe tomato and eating it while standing in the garden makes millions of Americans plant tomatoes in their yards every year. Planting time in our area runs from now until the summer solstice on June 20.

If you plant a garden of any kind, there likely are to be one or more tomato plants, as 90 percent of gardeners grow tomatoes. The unique flavors and dollar value of fresh homegrown tomatoes makes them more popular than any other garden crop.

Tomatoes, also known as love apples, once were considered an aphrodisiac in Europe. Their other name, wolf peach, refers to the tomato’s shapely beauty and alleged toxicity.

Wild tomatoes with tiny, red fruit originated in Peru and migrated north to Mexico, where the Pre-Columbian Indians domesticated them and selected for larger and more diverse fruits. By the time Cortez arrived in Mexico in 1519, the Aztecs grew an array of tomatoes in many sizes, shapes and colors.

The Indians called tomatoes “tomatl,” and they had them in red, yellow, orange and even white. Theirs were lobed or ribbed, not the kind of perfectly round tomatoes Europeans developed in the 1700s.

Tomatoes were taken from Mexico to Spain where they then spread to Morocco and other Mediterranean countries including Italy. Yellow tomatoes came to Italy where they were called pomo doro or golden apples.

Finally, tomatoes migrated to northern Europe where the French and others improved them through breeding and selecting for superior characteristics. While Italians ate tomatoes by the late 1500s, most Europeans grew them only as ornamental plants.

People were afraid to eat tomatoes because they are members of the nightshade family, which includes some highly toxic plants, such as deadly nightshade, mandrake and henbane. It took 300 years before tomatoes widely were accepted as food in Europe.

After the tomato’s reintroduction to America by European colonists, it remained an ornamental plant. Although few Americans were eating tomatoes until the 1850s, Thomas Jefferson grew and ate them in the late 1700s.

The first American book to mention tomatoes was Jefferson’s “Garden Book.” He was harvesting yellow tomatoes to make preserves in 1782.

Lynchburg’s historic Miller-Claytor house also is called Tomato House. Legend has it, Thomas Jefferson picked a love apple from its kitchen garden while visiting the city and ate it in public to demonstrate tomatoes are not poisonous.

Another early adopter of tomatoes was Eliza Leslie. Her book “Directions for Cookery,” published in 1828, contained several tomato recipes, including one for “tomata catchup.”

This condiment tasted good on meat and became popular. Heinz, in Pennsylvania, began making ketchup in 1876.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1893 the tomato legally is a vegetable although classified in botany as a fruit. This happened in response to a tomato importer’s efforts to avoid paying a vegetable tariff.

Don Davis is a retired Virginia Cooperative Extension agent. He can be reached at dodavis2@vt.edu.

Don Davis is a retired Virginia Cooperative Extension agent. He can be reached at dodavis2@vt.edu.

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