You say to-may-toh…                                   I say poisonous mandrake!

You say to-may-toh… I say poisonous mandrake!

In the Frameyard, in Pithouse Number 3, the tomatoes are ripening.

Among the varieties there are Sungold and Sweet Apperitivo, cherry tomatoes that can be eaten like sweets off the vine.  Standing beside these vines, the wonderful earthy, tobacco smell fills the warm air.

Some say that this smell is a natural deterrent against insects or pests. (It’s suggested that one could pick the foliage, soak it in hot water and use it as a spray). According to the University of California, glandular trichomes are responsible for secreting a yellow substance that gives off that characteristic “tomato plant” smell (see explanation below).  Whatever the scientific explanation is, some gardeners love it, some hate it. But the fruit is universally enjoyed nowadays, unlike the first reaction to tomatoes in medieval times.


Sungold Tomatoes ripening on the vine in The Fota Frameyard 

Fruit or vegetable? No doubt this frequently asked question didn’t bother the Aztecs, to whom we can trace the origin of the tomato, back to 700 AD. During the 1500’s Spain and Portugal explored the New World and Spanish conquistadores brought tomato seeds back to Europe. The tomato didn’t immediately prove popular with many Northern Europeans who believed it was poisonous. It’s possible that the reason for this was the use of pewter flatware among the upper classes at mealtimes. The acid in the tomato caused the lead to leak from these plates onto the food and this sometimes resulted in lead poisoning. Poor people, meanwhile, mainly ate off wooden plates and grew to enjoy the tomatoes. But this fear of the tomato may also have had to do with its classification as a member of the Solanaceae plant group which includes deadly nightshade (along with aubergines, potatoes, tobacco, chilli and peppers).

Pietro Andrea Matthioli, the Italian herbalist who first classified the tomato as a nightshade in 1544, also referred to it as a “mandrake”. Mandrakes are considered to be aphrodisiacs, hallucinogenic and used in witchcraft.  Another reason why Europeans initially thought it was safer to simply grow the tomato plant ornamentally, rather than eat it. Better to admire these colourful objects than to risk the consequences of eating one.

Many names were given to the tomato. The Aztecs called it tomatl (from the Aztec “xitomatl,” which means “plump thing with a navel”).  Italians, who seem to have embraced tomatoes early as a food, christened it “pommodoro” or golden apple, suggesting that the first tomatoes from South America were yellow.  The Spanish called it pome dei Moro (apple of the Moors) and the French pomme d’amour (love apple). This may be their romantic nature or a derivation of the Spanish name.   The Germans called it wolfpfirsich (wolf peach).

So back to the question – is it a fruit or a vegetable?  Botanically it is a fruit because it has seeds.  But this determination posed an interesting problem for North Americans, when the fruit was eventually embraced long after it had first come to Europe. In 1893, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was a vegetable, a ruling which allowed the U.S. Government to slap a tax levy on the importation of the tomato. Fruit was exempt from this tax. Basically the judge ruled that tomato was a vegetable because people thought it was. This ruling still stands today.

Nowadays, China is the greatest producer of tomatoes, followed by India. Many of the tomatoes we buy in supermarkets come from Spain. But there is nothing to compare with the smell and taste of a home-grown tomato in season, as they are now in the Fota Frameyard.

Read more:

Tomato smell –

Fear of the tomato:

Nutritional benefits of tomatoes: