Nature Bulletin No. 313-A September 21, 1968
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
The tomato has had a curious history. Like its relative, the potato, it
originated in South America, was taken to Europe by the Spaniards in
the early 1500's, and from there was brought to our American
colonies. Altho Thomas Jefferson's diary mentions "dwarf tomatas"
and "Spanish tomatas come to table", most people in this country and
northern Europe were afraid to eat them until about a century ago
because of their kinship and similarity to the poisonous nightshades.
Instead they were raised in old-fashioned gardens as ornamental plants
and their brightly colored fruit, red or yellow but wrinkled and much
smaller than our modern tomatoes, were used to decorate mantelpieces
and were called "love apples".
Today, tomatoes are one of our staple foods and we Americans eat an
average of about two bushels per person per year. One bushel is
processed commercially into canned tomatoes, soups, tomato juice,
green pickles, relishes and ketchup. Oil from the seeds is used in soap
and paint. The other bushel we buy fresh or raise in our gardens.
While the tomato has a high water content, it is an excellent food. In
addition to some carbohydrate and protein, it is rich in vitamin A,
nicotinic acid, and still more so in vitamin C. Six ounces of tomato
juice are said to provide the average adult with his minimum daily
requirement of the latter and about one-third his need of vitamin A.
Tens of centuries ago the pre-Incans in Peru began to cultivate a
nightshade-like vining plant with little red sourish berries. It still
grows in the highlands of that country. There is also a shrubby tree
tomato with yellow fruit which is found on the slopes of the Andes
Mountains, as high as 13,000 feet above sea level, and it can withstand
severe frosts. The pottery of these ancient people includes accurate
models of several types of tomatoes as well as corn, potatoes, peppers,
beans and squashes which they had developed from wild plants and
grew as crops.
Over the centuries the tomato was carried from Peru to the Maya
Indians of Central America and thence to the Toltecs of Mexico and
their Aztec conquerors who called it '"tomat". The Spaniards called it
"tomate". Now it is grown outdoors throughout the world except in
frigid and semi-frigid zones. Even in climates with short growing
season, large crops are possible if the plants are started "under glass".
It will grow on almost any soil but is killed by the first touch of frost.
Something of a vegetable hobo, it often thrives on ash piles, garbage
dumps and, because its small seeds are not digested, on beds of sewage
sludge. About half of the commercial yield in this country is grown in
California, Indiana and New Jersey. The rich black nat land in
southeastern Cook County is the principal tomato area in Illinois. In
winter, some tomatoes are grown in hothouses but most are shipped
from Texas and Florida, or imported from Mexico and Cuba.
The smooth thick-walled juicy tomatoes we have nowadays are far
different from the original kinds from which horticulturists have
developed scores of strains for different conditions and uses. Some
have plants which sprawl on the ground, some stand erect like a bush,
and some climb like a true vine. When ripe, their fruits have a wide
variety of shades of red or yellow and range in size and shape from the
little cherry tomato to the "Beefsteaks" and "Oxhearts" which may
weigh 2 or 3 pounds.
On Broadway, so they say, most guys spend their "potatoes" on dolls
they call "tomatoes".
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Update: June 2012