As 25th May to 6th June is British Tomato Fortnight, now is a great time to celebrate these wonderfully versatile plants. Here’s some fun facts about this modest little fruit, which is classed as a vegetable for nutritional purposes:
History and origins
Wild tomato plants are common in Peru and Ecuador, and it is believed that it was the Aztecs who discovered that the edible berry of the solanum lycopersicum plant was a useful food source.
It was not until the 16th century that the tomato was brought back to northern Europe. However, owing to its close resemblance to deadly nightshade, it was widely believed that tomato plants were poisonous, and they were grown solely as ornamental plants.
Those early gardeners were partly right – the roots and leaves of the tomato plant contain solanine, a poisonous neurotoxin that renders them inedible. It was the Italians, meanwhile, who realised that the berries were not harmful, and they set the tomato on its journey to becoming a common staple of our diet.
Varieties and colours
We’re now used to seeing all sorts of varieties of tomato, from fat beef tomatoes to tiny, sweet cherry tomatoes, and there are currently in excess of 10,000 different varieties of this plant, including colour variations in pink, purple, white and even black. The vibrant red we usually associate with tomatoes is probably a more modern feature – the Italian for tomato is “pomodoro”, which translates as “golden apple”, suggesting that most early varieties were yellow.
Tomatoes grow incredibly well in greenhouses, in containers sitting prettily next to your rattan garden furniture and even in window boxes, so it’s no wonder that these beautiful, juicy, flavourful berries continue to be such a favourite for cooks and gardeners alike.