The Origin of Tomatoes

Tomatoes are most closely associated with Italian cuisine, but the tomato itself did not originate in Italy. The story of its voyage from America to Europe, and back across the Atlantic to America, is so full of intrigue, adventure, and mystery that it could well be called “Romancing the Tomato”.

Swinging vines

Genetic theory suggests that the center of origin for any plant species is probably the place where the greatest biodiversity of wild species of that plant exist. This places the tomato squarely in the rainforests of the Andes in and around what is now Peru. Dating of the origin of tomatoes is usually fixed at 700 AD, possibly as this is the end point of the Classic Period of Incan Culture. However, Incan art and artifacts do not offer positive proof that the Incans domesticated or cultivated tomatoes.

There is slight evidence dating the tomato even earlier than this. In Europe in 200 AD, Galen identified a nebulous species known as Lycopersicon esculentum or ‘wolf peach’, with fruit that was both luscious and dangerous. In the 17th century, botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort applied the wolf peach nomenclature to the American tomato because it too was luscious, and at the time believed poisonous. Modern botanists, however, believe that Galen’s ‘wolf peach’ and the tomato are two entirely different things.


After the Incan era, the next verifiable appearance of the tomato is in Mexico in the 16th century, over eight hundred years after its Incan heyday. How the tomato made its way north is purely speculative; it may have migrated with birds that ingested its seeds, or tomato seeds may have been intentionally brought to the region in the course of human migration.

The Halls of Montezuma

In 1519, Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived in what is now Mexico. Legend has it that one of his happier exchanges with Montezuma, the leader of the indigenous Aztecs, involved a gift of tomato seeds which Cortés eventually brought back to Europe.

The Aztecs were clearly cultivating and consuming the tomato. Montezuma’s gifted seeds were said to have come from his own garden. in 1529, Bernardino Sahagun, a Franciscan missionary in Mexico, wrote about a regional dish of tomatoes, chilies, and ground squash seeds. The tomato was on record.

In the Aztec’s Nahuatl language, the tomato was called ‘tomatl’, which means ‘swelling fruit’.

Over the bounding main

The tomato made it safely to Europe. The earliest tomatoes were probably yellow; they were known in Italy as pomi d’oro, or ‘gold apples’. They were known as pommes d’amour , or ‘love apples’, in France, due to their reputed aphrodisiac qualities. In England, they were known as ‘devil’s apples’ because of the widely-held belief that they were poisonous and/or hallucinogenic. The tomato was suffering from mistaken identity.

Alter egos and evil twins

The tomato is a member of the Solanaceae, or nightshade, family of plants. The tomato plant very closely resembles its cousin, the deadly nightshade. To further complicate the issue, atropine, which is what makes the nightshade deadly, is present in the leaves and stems of the tomato plant as well.

In Europe, the tomato was a popular ornamental, but it was viewed with culinary suspicion for a long time. The Spaniards and Italians were the first to consider it edible, probably in the late 16th century. The rest of the Old World was slow to follow, but England eventually succumbed to the tomato by the end of the 18th century. By the mid-19th century, Middle Easterners were also enjoying tomatoes.

The return of the prodigal

While the tomato was establishing itself in Europe, Europeans were migrating to America in droves. The movement was spearheaded by the Puritans, who had little sympathy for ‘devil’s apples’ or ‘love apples’, so the tomato did not get off to a flying start on its return to America. 

Tomatoes were grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, but were more of a curiosity than anything in North America for some time. Widespread cultivation of the tomato for human consumption did not begin until the mid-19th century, when people from a wider variety of cultures began migrating from Europe to America.

Happily ever after

In 1893, the United States Supreme Court put an end to any hint of tomato identity crisis when they determined, in Nix versus Hedden, that the tomato was a vegetable, and not a fruit, based on the customs of its use.

The story of Colonel Johnson of Salem, New Jersey is probably apocryphal, but it brings the tomato full circle. To prove that the tomato was not poisonous, the Colonel stood before an audience of 2000 on the steps of the Salem Courthouse on September 26, 1820 and consumed a bushel basket of tomatoes. He lived, and the region eventually became home to the Campbell’s Soup Company and its iconic tomato soup.