Not Your Garden Variety Tomato: Why Europeans Believed This Fruit Would Kill You

Not Your Garden Variety Tomato: Why Europeans Believed This Fruit Would Kill You

Natasha sheldon - January 18, 2018

In the sixteenth century, Spanish conquistadors returned to Spain with a most unusual souvenir of their conquest of the Americas: a small, yellow, cherry-sized fruit, which was a favorite foodstuff with the indigenous people. The fruit, known to the Aztecs as the tomatl, was reputedly discovered in 1521 by Hernando Cortes after the capture of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, (now Mexico city). The tomatl or tomato as it became know had been popular with the locals since around 700 AD. Cortes brought some of the seeds of the fruit with him back to Spain, and so Europe’s love affair with the tomato began.

However, the ascent of this foreign fruit was by no means immediate as many people regarded the tomato with suspicion. Its acceptance by the cooks of Europe was a gradual thing, dogged by misconceptions and mishaps. While the Italians began to experiment with the tomato in cuisine as early as 1544, by 1700, the British and Americans still regarded the fruit as poisonous. So why were people so fearful of the tomato? And what happened to change their mind about it?

Not Your Garden Variety Tomato: Why Europeans Believed This Fruit Would Kill You
First drawing of tomato in Europe by Pietro Andrea Mattioli. Wikimedia Commons

Guilty by Association

The bright, shiny fruit of the tomato immediately reminded many Europeans of certain poisonous plants they were familiar with, particularly Deadly Nightshade. This observation was an astute one, for the tomato and nightshade plant were both members of the same family: the Solanaceae. Derived from the Latin name Solanum, for nightshade, the Solanaceae is a family of flowering plants, which has edible and inedible members. The consumable, besides the tomato, include the potato, chili peppers, and aubergines or eggplant. However, besides nightshade, other deadly members of the family included Mandrake and wolfsbane.

The aubergine was already familiar to southern Europeans as an edible member of the family. However, nightshade and Mandrake were known to be either hallucinogenic or poisonous. The similarities between the tomato’s fruit and nightshade berries immediately made the tomato suspect. In 1544, the Italian herbalist Pietro Andrea Mattioli was the first to formally classified the tomato as a Solanae, likening it to a cross between Mandrake and Deadly Nightshade. This comparison immediately put the tomato under a shadow, made worse by the fact that leaves; stem and roots of the plant are indeed poisonous.

This reputation was made worse by John Gerard, an English Barber surgeon who was one of the earliest cultivators of the tomato plant in England. In 1597, Gerard published one of the earliest discussions on the tomato in his Herball. His account drew upon earlier, continental accounts of the fruit, which Gerard attempted to pass off as based own experience. Gerard’s assessment of the tomato was most unfavorable. He branded ‘the whole plant’ to be ‘of ranke and stinking savor.” Worse yet, based on its association with deadly nightshade, Gerard branded the whole plant, not just the leaves and stalk, as toxic.

Not Your Garden Variety Tomato: Why Europeans Believed This Fruit Would Kill You
Deadly Nightshade Berry. Google Images.

The In 1692, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort created a new classification amongst the Solanae, especially for the tomato. De Tournefort referred to the plant as Lycopersicon or wolf peach. De Tournefort’s new classification combined the innocent peach-like shape of the fruit with its deadly reputation. In German folk belief, werewolves could be summoned using members of the Solanaceae family such as nightshade. So, from the outset, the tomato’s reputation was tainted by its resemblance to certain of its European relatives. It became guilty by association.

This reputation was not aided by the fact that, in northern Europe at least, eating tomatoes resulted in some very unfortunate experiences.

Not Your Garden Variety Tomato: Why Europeans Believed This Fruit Would Kill You
Cosimo De Medici. Google Images.

The ‘Poison Apple’

By the mid-sixteenth century, the tomato was being given a cautious welcome into the Mediterranean kitchen. The first recorded account of the tomato was written by the household steward of Cosimo De Medici on October 21, 1548. The steward wrote to the Medici’s secretary, informing him that a basket of tomatoes, sent from the Duke’s estate at Torre del Gallo near Florence had arrived safely.

Those tomatoes may have been heading for the Duke’s kitchen. For in 1544, at the same time as he was drawing comparisons between the tomato and its poisonous cousins, Mattioli was also acknowledging that it was in fact edible. His Discorsi noted how some Italians had come to regard the South American fruits as a red or yellow aubergine, which could be cooked into an acceptable dish using salt, pepper, and oil. By 1554, the tomato had achieved its own culinary identity. It was now referred to as pomi d’oro or ‘golden apple.’

However, the tomato’s role in cooking was by no means universally accepted across Italy. Most people only grew tomatoes “ for their beauty” according to the Florentine aristocrat Giovanvettorio Soderini, who describes how they became features in flower gardens. In Northern Europe, this was a conclusion the British quickly came to agree with as they rejected the tomato as a food source after some particularly unfortunate incidents amongst the elite.

Not Your Garden Variety Tomato: Why Europeans Believed This Fruit Would Kill You
Pietro Andrea Mattioli by Alessandro Bon Vicino. Google Images.

The British were prepared to try the new fruit. However, unlike in Italy, the tomato was served uncooked and sliced, presented on pewter plates. However, many observed that people were falling ill after consuming the novelty fruit. They concluded that this was because the likes of Gerard were right; the tomato was indeed poisonous. So, in Britain at least, it came to be regarded not so much as a golden apple as a “poison apple.”

However, the British knew southern Europeans were eating the tomato without ill effects. So, a neat explanation was formulated to account for this-, based on climatic differences. The tomato was the native of a hot climate. Therefore, it was only natural that made it more suitable for eating in hot countries. According to John Parkinson, King James I of England’s apothecary, southern Europeans suffered no ill effects from tomato eating because the fruit ‘coole and quench the heate and thirst of the hot stomaches,”

However, what no one then realized was it was not the tomato, or eating it in the wrong climate that was making northern Europeans ill but rather the plates they were using. For the tomato’s acid juices leeched into the serving dishes and reacting with the lead that formed the pewter. People were not suffering from tomato poisoning; they were suffering from lead poisoning.

However, the British did not discard the tomato. For, like the Italian’s they recognized the merits of the plant’s appearance and its exotic origins. So they began to grow them as garden ornaments instead. Colonists to North American carried this fashion- and the tomato’s terrible reputation, onto Britains new colonies where they remained firmly entrenched until the nineteenth century.

Today, the tomato is one of the most popular staples in America and Europe. So what changed?

Not Your Garden Variety Tomato: Why Europeans Believed This Fruit Would Kill You
Pomodorino del Piennolo del Vesuvio. Google Images.

The Rehabilitation of the Tomato

In the seventeenth century, while Britain and America staunchly avoided eating the tomato, in southern Europe, the fruit was undergoing a renaissance. In 1692, the earliest known cookbook containing tomato recipes was published in Naples. Most of these recipes were of Spanish origin. However, what had undoubtedly encouraged the Italians’ to adopt them was the proliferation of new tomato varieties that were taking root in Italy. Favorite examples included Pomodorino del Piennolo del Vesuvio; the “hanging tomato of Vesuvius”, which was itself the by-product of other Italian hybrids such as Fiaschella, Lampadina, Patanara, Principe Borghese, and Re Umberto.

Finally, in the eighteenth century, the British began to eat tomatoes again. Once more, they became an elite dish. An end of century entry in the Encyclopædia Britannica refers to the tomato as being “in daily use’ in soups, broths and as a garnish. Markets sold the fruit widely. However, the tomato was not for the ordinary people. It was used only the “best cooks” implying the fruit was of interest only to the privileged few. In recognition of this renaissance, in 1754, the tomato was declared an edible species of Lycoperscion, transforming its name into Lycopersicon Esculentum- the edible wolf peach.

However, it took a while for the American’s to trust the tomato. While they continued to grow tomatoes as ornamental plants in their new homeland (the herbalist William Salmon reported in his Botanologia of 1710 that tomato plants were cultivated for this purpose in North Carolina), they still were still refusing to eat them. After the war of independence, Thomas Jefferson reputedly brought the seeds back from Europe and began to grow them on his own estate. However, the tomato was not widely accepted in America until the nineteenth century.

Not Your Garden Variety Tomato: Why Europeans Believed This Fruit Would Kill You
Alexander Livingston’s tomato seed catalog. Google Images.

By the 1800s, mass immigration from across Europe and most notably southern Europe led to a new attitude towards the tomato in America. Italian immigrants, in particular, helped with this, especially after the invention of the tomato-based pizza in Naples in 1880. The margarita pizza as it became known was named after Italy’s new Queen and was modeled on the red, white and green flag of the newly united nation. It also quite literally put tomatoes on the culinary map.

But the fruit’s popularity was revolutionized mid-century by Alexander Livingston, a farmer who was the first person in America to develop different strains of tomato and grow the fruit as a commercial crop. Livingston’s first variety, the Paragon was introduced in 1870 and by nineteen hundred, he responsible for 17 strains of tomato. In 1937, the federal Department of agriculture credited Livingstone with revolutionizing tomato growing in the US. By this time, tomatoes were being grown all over the country- and were widely appreciated. The tomato’s days in the wilderness were finally over.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: Why the Tomato Was Feared in Europe for over 200 years.

Tomato Cages.Com: Tomato History.

Planet History of Tomatoes.

Modern Farmer: From Poison to Passion- The Secret History of the Tomato.

Science Deadly Nightshade and Related Plants.

Genomics-Assisted Crop Improvement: Vol 2: Genomics Applications in Crops edited by Rajeev K. Varshney, Roberto Tuberosa.