It’s tomato time again

As the spring season finally arrives, gardeners far and wide and especially in Ohio are planning and actually worshipping this important time of the year.

The elusive, elegant, beautiful, luscious and tasty tomato is constantly on their minds. This vegetable (or is it a fruit?) is perhaps the centerpiece of all gardening. Much thought goes into this marvelous wonder so as to produce the largest, sweetest, tastiest and productive tomato of them all. You see, a good, old garden tomato has a taste that far exceeds those bought in any grocery store all winter long, which, as you know, taste like plastic.

The tomato, like everything else, has a fabulous history as well. The tomato, it seems, is native to western South America and Central America. In 1519, Spanish explorer Cortez discovered tomatoes growing in Montezuma’s gardens and brought seeds back to Europe, where they were planted as an ornamental crop. They were not eaten!

The English word tomato comes from the Spanish word “tomate.” Tomatoes were thought to be poisonous by the Europeans, who were very suspicious of this bright, shiny fruit. These native versions were probably small like our cherry tomatoes and probably more yellow than red. In Italy, they were known as “pomi d’oro” which meant yellow apples. Italy was the first to cultivate the tomato outside of South America.

As far as being poisonous, in the 1500s, rich people used flatware made from pewter, which has a high lead content. Foods high in acids, as tomatoes are, would cause the lead to leech out into the food, resulting in lead poisoning and death. Poor people who ate off wooden plates did not have that problem.

As a mass immigration occurred from Europe to America, the Italians brought along with them their tomato seeds, as they had been eating and cooking with tomatoes for years. Pasta dishes with tomato sauces were an instant hit. Then, along came the fabulous invention of pizza in the 1880s in Naples. The story goes that pizza was representative of the Italian flag’s colors, red, white and green. Red was the color of the tomato sauce, white was the mozzarella cheese and the green was the basil topping. Tomatoes really did not catch on in American kitchens until pre-Civil War times.

In 1876, Heinz launched its first tomato ketchup, and by 1907 was producing 12 million bottles of ketchup per year. In 1897, soup great Joseph Campbell came out with condensed tomato soup and really started actually endearing the tomato to the general public.

Down through the years, science has developed many different species of this delectable fruit (or is it a vegetable?). There are many different colors from red to yellow, to even black and purple and also a red zebra type. And how about a Hawaiian Pineapple tomato? Yeah, they’ve got one! Some come in three colors – red, tangerine and gold. They come in four-pounders all the way down to cherry and grape tomatoes.

Did you know that a single cup of raw tomatoes provides 50 percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C and almost 25 percent of the RDA of vitamin A as well as many other vitamins and nutrients including iron, folic acid, potassium , calcium, vitamin K and even lycopene, which a number of studies suggest helps prevent several types of cancer including prostate cancer?

There are many tomato-type helpers out there as you plant your tomato plants, including stakes, cages and even an “automator,” which is an all-purpose feeder, weeder and waterer. There is special tomato food and many other fertilizers and mulches including spikes and even blossom set sprays.

Only you know how far you want to go to deliver the tastiest, sweetest morsel ever to your table. The only question I have is … is it a fruit or a vegetable?

NOTE: Some of the information in this article was obtained from