Tomatoes wild relatives originated in South America, most likely in the Andes Mountains, but the fruit was not cultivated by the Andean people. Instead, it traveled over 2,000 miles north of its center of origin to Central America where the pre-Mayan people grew and domesticated the plants, naming them xitomatl. Hernán Cortés and his explorers are credited with finding the tomato in an Aztec market around 1520 and transporting the seed to Spain and the rest of Europe.
Bringing Tomatoes to the New World
Colonialists brought many plants from Europe to the New World, and the tomato was one of them. Thomas Jefferson raised them as ornamental plants at Monticello in 1781, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that people in North America began to relish tomatoes as food. In 1880, James Vick’s Flower and Vegetable Catalog of Rochester, New York listed six types of tomato seeds. In that same decade, Alexander Livingston of Livingston Seed Co. introduced ‘Golden Queen’, described in W. Atlee Burpee’s 1888 Farm Annual catalog as “handsome yellow slices making a beautiful contrast in a dish with the red tomatoes.” Burpee listed twenty-one other tomato varieties for sale that year as well. A select few tomatoes from that era, including ‘Acme’, ‘Paragon’, and the revered ‘Brandywine’, can still be grown today.
A select few tomatoes from that era, including ‘Acme’, ‘Paragon’, and the revered ‘Brandywine’, can still be grown today. These and thousands of other tomatoes are known as heirloom tomatoes, loosely defined as varieties that have been in circulation for more than 50 years. Open-pollinated tomatoes, which include heirlooms and all other varieties that grow true from seed, remain popular with home gardeners. Saving and sharing the seed of the many unique tomato varieties is a labor of love for many gardeners who help to maintain the genetic diversity of the species.
The modern age of the tomato was ushered in by Dr. Oved Shifriss, who bred ‘Big Boy’, one of the first F1 hybrids. Offered by W. Atlee Burpee in 1949, this meaty 1 lb. tomato is still sold today. Thousands of hybrids succeeded it, offering gardeners desirable traits such as earliness, disease resistance or tolerance, and compact habits. These traits make it easier for gardeners and farmers to successfully grow tomatoes in smaller spaces or without using pesticides.