Article: Andy Hrast (COGS Quarterly – Summer 2021)

© Can Stock Photo / Shaiith


The tomato is the edible berry (it’s technically a berry rather than fruit) of the plant Solanum lycopersicum, commonly known as a tomato plant. The species originated in the northwest of South America where it still grows wild.

Aztecs and other peoples in Mesoamerica were the first to domesticate the tomato and use it as food. The word ‘tomato’ comes from the Aztec word ‘xitomatl’.

The Spanish brought tomatoes from Mexico to Europe and the earliest mention of them in Europe is in 1544 by an Italian botanist who named the plant ‘pomi d’oro’ or ‘golden apples’. The French called them ‘love apples’ (pomme d’amour) for their supposed aphrodisiac qualities. The Spanish introduced them to the Philippines from where they spread throughout Asia, and they have become incorporated into the local cuisines. The tomato was initially grown as an ornamental plant in Europe. Tomatoes were regarded with suspicion as a food because they belong to the nightshade family and are a relative of the poisonous belladonna. This fear was exacerbated by the way the acidic tomato juice blackened the commonly used pewter plates.

Tomatoes were being used as food by the early 17th century in Spain but were considered unfit for eating for many years in Britain and its North American colonies. By the end of 18th century the Encyclopedia Britannica stated the tomato was ‘in daily use’ in soups, broths, and as a garnish. By 1820, tomatoes were described as “to be seen in great abundance in all our vegetable markets” and to be “used by all our best cooks” for exotic Italian or Jewish cuisine.

Plant breeding

Tomatoes have undergone a massive evolution from their original pea size and relatively sour taste. Much of the
focus of the breeding has been on developing the size and the sweeter flavours. There are now more than 7,500 varieties worldwide. There are currently no GMO tomatoes.

Interesting tomato facts

Tomato family

Tomatoes are part of the Solanaceae family, also known as the potato or deadly nightshade family which is one of humankind’s most utilised and important plant families. It contains some of the world’s most important food plants, such as the potato, tomato, capsicums and eggplants.

Biggest tomato

According to the Guinness World Book of Records, the largest tomato weighed 4.896kg when weighed in Walla Walla, Washington on 15 July 2020. The weight was authenticated by the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth. The tomato was the ‘Domingo’ cultivar.

The largest tomato plant, reaching 19.8m in length, was grown hydroponically in the UK in 2000. It was a ‘Sungold’ cultivar.

A ‘tomato tree’ growing inside the Walt Disney World Resort’s experimental greenhouse in Florida has been recognised by a Guinness World Book of Records with a harvest of more than 32,000 tomatoes weighing 522 kg. The vine grew golf ball-sized tomatoes, which were served at Walt Disney World restaurants. The tree developed a disease and was removed in April 2010 after about 13 months.

Tomato production

Worldwide tomato production in 2020 is estimated to have been about 177m tonnes. The largest producer is China (56m tonnes) followed by India with 18m tonnes. Australian production was about 405,000 tonnes.