Tomatoes and the Aztecs

tomato 'super marmande', beef steak tomato, greenhouse, marie shallcross

Ripe tomatoes eaten sun-warmed, fresh off the vine; rotten tomatoes traditionally thrown at bad actors and performers on stage; green tomatoes – an economical use of unripened fruit to provide a food source – chutney.


The tomato’s Latin name, Solanum lycopersicum, reflects that it was originally named ‘wolf peach’ by suspicious Europeans. They thought it was poisonous and originally grew it as an ornamental climber.

However, the word ‘tomato’ itself derives from the Aztec ‘xitomatl’, pronounced ‘ji-tomatel’.

As well as the classic round, golf ball sized tomato, there are small cherry tomatoes and plum tomatoes, both shaped after the fruit they’re named for. The beefsteak tomato is named after the meat; their inner flesh is marbled in appearance as a good steak would be.

Whilst we might think of tomatoes as being red, the colour range available is impressive. You can grow and eat red, yellow, black, orange, white, green and striped tomatoes!

Tomatoes are short lived perennials plants, originally from South America. They’re not frost tolerant and so in temperate regions we generally consider them to be annuals, grown from seed or bought in as small plants.

The tomato is a member of the Solanaceae family, which also includes deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) and sweet peppers (Capsicum annuum). The ornamental climber Solanum crispum ‘Glasnevin‘ or potato vine is also a family member. Tomatoes, like their other family members, contain alkaloids. The leaves and stems are toxic, as are the uncooked, unripened fruit.

outdoor tomatoes still to ripen, marie shallcross

Tomatoes originally grew wild in South America and have been cultivated in Central America since about 700AD. The history of the tomato’s wanderings from the South to Central Americas to Europe and Asia, then back to the Americas is not fully documented. This early movement could well have been incidental. For example, if traders in other crops and seeds inadvertently carried tomato seeds with them. Or even dropped seeds as they themselves ate the sweet fruit.

The tomato was most definitely in domestication by the Aztecs by the early sixteenth century. Aztec writings include recipes containing peppers, tomatoes and seasoning – an early salsa recipe, no less!

The tomatoes that the Aztecs were cultivating were not the classic tomatoes that we know today. They would have been growing the wild tomato, which is more like a cherry tomato.

It seems likely that tomatoes were taken from the Aztecs in Mexico over to Spain and the Mediterranean by the Conquistadores and other early explorers. The first recorded mention of tomatoes in Europe is in Mattioli’s herbal of 1544. At that time, they were called ‘pomi d’oro’, or golden apple, suggesting that they were small yellow tomatoes. They were considered an aphrodisiac and the name ‘pomme d’amour’ or ‘love apple’ was also used. Both of these names could even be corruptions of ‘pomo dei moro’ or Moorish apple, which implies southern Spain.

heritage variety - yellow cherry plum tomato, vintage china

The northern European countries were less keen on the new introduction. They were wary of the tomato’s poisonous qualities and they weren’t a big food seller until the late 18th century. This didn’t stop tomatoes being taken as ornamental plants by colonists from Europe to North America. Gradually they were accepted as food; Thomas Jefferson, who was a great gardener as well as a Founding Father and US President, cultivated tomatoes in his vegetable garden at Monticello.

Botanically speaking, the tomato is a fruit not a vegetable, its seeds encompassed by flesh. However, in 1893, the United States Supreme Court defined it as a vegetable; mainly, one feels, so that it should remain taxable as an ‘imported vegetable’.


Jefferson also encouraged his neighbours to eat tomatoes – which was a wise move as ripe tomatoes are definitely one of the ‘healthy foods’. Not only do they contain vitamin C – more than an orange, but tomatoes are chock full of anti-oxidants.

Lycopene is a carotenoid pigment that has long been associated with the deep red colour of many tomatoes. It is present in all tomatoes to a greater or lesser degree. This pigment is the ‘magic ingredient’ in tomatoes which helps to reduce cholesterol. It also seems it may reduce the likelihood of osteoporosis in post-menopausal women.

In the UK, commercial tomato production began in glasshouses in Kent, Sussex and Guernsey during the 19th century. The introduction of large scale sheets of glass and the ability to construct large wrought iron frames for buildings enabled a profitable method of large scale growing of tomatoes.

Tomatoes are one of the most widely grown ‘vegetables’ worldwide; new varieties, bred for disease resistance appear regularly. However, historic heirloom tomatoes, better in flavour than many commercially grown tomato crops, have become popular for the allotment and home gardener.

And on a final note, did you know that the tomato has even been grown in space? Although not yet by Dr Who in his TARDIS…

tomato 'indigo rose', black cherry tomatoes


Related Gardening blogs you may enjoy

Tomato Tasting – 5 Varieties to Grow in Pots

Easy Maintenance Edible Gardens

Choosing Your Greenhouse


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