The tomato is member of the nightshade family and could originally be found only in South America. Here there are still wild tomato species found in various environments although most wild tomato species seem to prefer a dry environment. Most wild tomato species would be difficult to recognize as a tomato to the layman. Usually there are not more than a centimeter in diameter, often green and wooly, covered in a soft fur. Moreover they are usually not very tasty to our palate, but rather bitter.
Tomatoes are thought to have first grown in western South America, in the region of modern day Peru and Ecuador. Wild species are still found in these areas as well as farther south in Chile and Bolivia. Tomato plants are found in all sorts of environments from the deserts and dry valleys on the Western slopes of the Andes to fog-saturated cloud forests and even above the snowline on the Andean mountains. However, most wild species prefer dry conditions.
It is not known when the tomato was first cultivated by humans in their region of origin, albeit that it must have been early. Before the great dispersion of the tomato all across the world started they already made their way from the region of Peru and Ecuador to Mexico to the aztec empire. In the mexico area the tomato has been in cultivation since at least 500 BC. When the Spanish arrived in this region they were introduced to the tomato. To the aztecs the tomato was known as Xitomatl. It is not exactly clear who and when exactly took these domesticated tomatoes back to Europe, but soon after they make their official appearance in the works of an Italian botanist named Matthioli in 1544. Although we think of the standard tomato being red he described a “golden” yellow tomato the size of a fist as the“pomi d’oro”, or the golden apple.
The arrival of the tomato in europe was the start of the worldwide success story of the tomato.The tomato quickly gains acceptance as a new food item in Europe and spreads throughout Europe and are cultivated in Germany already as early as 1553, then in the Netherlands in 1554 and a few years later in France. It took some more time to cross the channel and the tomato arrived in England in 1597. The tomato not just spread across Europe, it also quickly spread throughout the medeterranean area in the middle east and northern africa. The Europeans also took the tomato to China and south east asia, where the tomato quickly became accepted.
The tomato didn’t take the direct route to Northern America. It is not clear how it was introduced exactly and the tomato could have taken either a more direct route, where one possibility is that the Spanish empire introduced the tomato in North America via their colonies in the south. Another option is that French Huguenot refugees and British colonists took seeds from their homelands. The other possibility is that the tomato took the long way around and came to Northern America through the Caribbean.The introduction of the tomato coincides in this scenario with the migration from the British West Indies in the late 17th century.
Very varied in size, colour, and appearance, most wild tomatoes don’t look anything like those you would buy in a shop. They are usually about a centimetre across, green in colour, and covered with fur. What’s more, their taste can be distinctly bitter and unpleasant. Which of these wild tomatoes (if any) gave rise to the modern tomato is not certain, but it probably developed from the species Solanum pimpinellifolium, which looks and tastes most like the tomatoes we are used to.