The tomato originated in the foothills of the Andes Mountains and European explorers returned with samples in the early 16th Century. The Aztecs had been cultivating it for years, calling it 'tomatl' and various spellings of the name turn up in old descriptions of plants from the Americas. Apothecaries were the first Europeans to embrace the fruits, touting them a powerful aphrodisiac. They included them in their 'love potion' recipes and that's where the popular nickname pomme d'amour, or 'love apple' originated.
It took another 200 years for the tomato to become a popular food among Europeans and the settlers of the eastern seaboard in the Americas simply grew them as a decorative curiosity, believing them to be poison. The leaves and stems are, in fact poisonous as the plants belong to the genus Solenaceae or nightshade family. The peoples who ventured further south and west along the Gulf Coast and what would become Texas didn't have the same distrust for the fruit since they saw the native population consuming them with great gusto. The first tomatoes were small (about the size of today's cherry tomatoes) and often yellow or golden, giving rise to their Spanish or Italian name 'pomi d'oro' (gold apples.) The Italians were the first to embrace the tomato as a food outside the Americas and were the first to actively grow it as a crop, developing regional sauces and recipes that are still in use today.
The tomato was finally used as a food by the French during their Revolution of 1783. It was said that the red Phrygian caps or bonnet rouge, worn by the members of the Republic resembled the tomato and since the consuming of red food was said to be patriotic to the Revolution, (they liked bloody things) the tomato became a popular dish of the faithful, especially since it was also disdained by the aristocracy. Stewed tomatoes soon became a common dish eaten by those pledged to the Republic.
It took a few more decades for enlightenment to come to former colonies in the Americas. Legend has it the turning point came in 1820 when a crowd of over 2000 people showed up to watch Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson eat a basket of tomatoes on the courthouse steps in Salem, New Jersey. His own doctor proclaimed him foolish and suicidal with predictions of Colonel Johnson foaming at the mouth with his blood turning to acid, brain fever and convulsions, resulting in a painful death. The spectacle proving to be prime entertainment for the residents near and far. The story indicates there was a band playing a dirge and women fainted when he actually bit into the fearful fruit. His survival convinced these early Americans to give the tomato a chance and we've never looked back. By 1842 farm publications and seed companies were offering mail order tomato seed to the general public.
We've come a long way since then. The tomato has become one of the most popular plants grown by home gardeners. From large vegetable gardens, to pots on apartment balconies, people around the world love their home-grown tomatoes. We make sauces, soups, salads, salsas, casseroles, pickles and any number of dishes using the tomato. Breeders over the centuries have developed tomatoes of all sizes, colors and shapes and true tomato connoisseurs will tell you each one has its own flavor and texture. There's sure to be a tomato to please every taste.
To grow your tomatoes from seed, start them 6 to 8 weeks before your last frost date. Plant them in slightly moist, sterile potting mix and cover the containers with a sheet of plastic wrap. Place in a warm spot and when the seedlings emerge, place them under fluorescent lights. Water as needed, keeping the soil on the dry side, rather than the wet to prevent fungal diseases. A couple of weeks before setting your plants in the garden, harden them off by gradually introducing them to the outdoors and full sunlight. Plant them in a sunny location or in your favorite container and wait for the tomatoes to appear. Depending on the variety you choose, ripe fruits take between 60 and 120 days. As a rule of thumb, the larger the tomato, the longer it takes to ripen. We have many participating vendors offering tomato seeds of all types, so there's sure to be on that pleases your family. Try growing a new variety for your family this spring.