By Larry Clark
A FRUIT OF MYTHS AND LEGENDS
For a staple found in backyard gardens and farmer’s markets everywhere, the tomato certainly carries its share of myths. The rich, acidic fruit that we often call a vegetable has been considered a poison and an aphrodisiac. Even in late Renaissance Italy, a botanist connected the tomato to the golden apples of Greek mythology.
Despite its rep, gardeners grow tomatoes by the bucketful all over the state, often with help from Washington State University researchers and Master Gardener volunteers.
Tomatoes were no mystery to the South Americans who first ate them. The fruit grows wild in the coastal highlands of Peru, Ecuador, and northern Chile. It was later cultivated in Central America, where it looked similar to a plant the Aztecs called “tomatl.” Spanish explorers took the plant to Europe and beyond, calling it “tomate,” and farmers have grown the plant there since the 1540s.
Italian herbalist Pietro Andrae Matthioli in 1544 included in his plant guide a reference to a yellow tomato, which he called mala aurea, the “golden apple.” In 1553, Swiss naturalist Konrad Gesner painted a watercolor of a red poma amoris, a “love apple,” named for the tomato’s alleged aphrodisiac qualities.
The smelly leaves and stalks of the tomato plant, or its nightshade cousins, may have led English writers to decry the toxicity of tomatoes in the 1590s. However, as Andrew F. Smith writes in The Tomato in America, tomatoes were still eaten throughout the British Isles and the rest of Europe.
On this side of the Atlantic, English botanist William Salmon reported tomatoes in Carolina in 1710, probably brought in by Spaniards or others.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, tomatoes were cultivated all over the continent, including the Pacific Northwest, where they were introduced by missionaries. In 1839, a visitor reported tomatoes growing on the banks of the Walla Walla River. Historian Sidney Warren claimed that Oregon and Washington pioneers boiled them with sugar until thick, added honey, and put them on hotcakes.
The misconception of belief in poisonous tomatoes spread with apocryphal tales of daring farmers who ate them anyway, according to Smith. His historical research found few early American accounts about the risks of tomatoes. They were sometimes not eaten because of polluted water used to wash vegetables. Others didn’t like the smell or the taste.
Even the tomato’s pests earned mythic notoriety. The fat, three-inch-long green tomato hornworm definitely wasn’t a creature more toxic than a rattlesnake that could spit poison three feet at unsuspecting farmers.
Pests still exist for the tomato, as most gardeners know, but Carol Miles, a WSU vegetable researcher at the Mount Vernon Research Center, says the major concern in western Washington is late blight. The fungal disease, which can wipe out a tomato crop overnight, spreads on wet leaves.
Because of the short growing season, many tomatoes are cultivated in long, tall protective structures called high tunnels. They can capture moisture that leads to infection. Serendipitously, Miles and her colleagues discovered a well-ventilated tunnel will reduce the risk.
“As long as the tunnel has good ventilation and the plants are well-managed, there’s not enough moisture to allow the spore to germinate and infect the plant,” she says.
Miles works on both the east and west sides of Washington. About five years ago, she joined other vegetable experts in the Northwest to deal with an odd condition where leaves began to curl up all over Oregon, Idaho, and Washington.
“Everyone immediately thought ‘virus’ because that’s a pretty common symptom of plant viruses. So people were starting to pull out plants,” says Miles. After their labs determined it was physiological leaf roll caused by a dry environment, Miles and the others saved a lot of tomato plants by responding within a week.
Over on the east side of the state, at the WSU Extension office in Spokane County, Master Gardener volunteer Laren Sunde dispenses advice to tomato gardeners daily when she works from May through July. She says a big problem is eagerness.
“In our neck of the woods everyone wants to put out their tomatoes the first of May,” says Sunde. “That’s way too early.”
Instead, she says, “if you want to have tomatoes in July, the best thing is to start seeds in the house in late February or early March. Harden them off outside during the day in April and early May. Then put them out in mid- to late May.”
Sunde also encourages gardeners to water regularly, not sporadically, especially in dry summers.
For western Washington tomato fans, Miles’ main growing advice is to prune heavily, one or two main stems to open up the plant. “If you don’t prune, you get a lot of green tomatoes. If you prune, you get fewer tomatoes but they ripen early.”
And you definitely want ripe tomatoes. There’s nothing quite like a juicy, savory, and flavorful tomato right out of the garden.
Miles says her favorite way of eating them fresh is sliced in a vinaigrette with red onions, cucumbers, oil and vinegar, salt and pepper. “I top it with feta cheese if I’m feeling adventurous,” she says.
For Sunde, ripe cherry tomatoes off the plant are a favorite, as is tomato salad with basil, parsley, and a little olive oil. She also roasts tomatoes with olive oil and coarse salt, then freezes them for winter use in sauces and stews.
With hundreds of varieties, in many colors, there’s a tomato for anyone, says Sunde. She even had great success last year with a new variety: Cougar Red, developed for eastern Washington by WSU.