Tomatoes belong to the genus Lycopersicon, the same family as potatoes. Tomatoes originated in South America. There are presently eight species of wild tomato in the Andes Mountains of Peru. Heirloom tomatoes are tomatoes that are open-pollinated and the seed saved. Hybrid tomatoes are cross-bred with several varieties, and the seed will revert to one of its original varieties. Heirloom tomatoes stay true to their variety but may not have some of the advantages of hybrids, such as resistance to tomato diseases.
Evidence points to South America as the place of origin of tomatoes--science suggests that the place in the world that has the greatest variety of species is likely where the plant originated. There are eight wild varieties in Peru. In the 16th century, there were tomatoes cultivated in Central America. When the European explorers arrived at the Aztec civilization of the Yucatan peninsula, they found tomatoes, an unknown food to Europeans.
Wild to Domesticated
There are no depictions of tomatoes as food in pre-Columbian South American art. Tribes in Central America at the same time depicted tomatoes in their artwork. Use in artwork indicates domestication of the originally wild tomato plant. Aztec writings mention food mixtures combining peppers, salt and tomatoes. The cultivar called cerasiforme is regarded as the direct ancestor of the modern tomato variety. It is related to the Mexican cultivar from the Aztec era.
Central America to Europe
The earliest European mention of tomatoes was in an herbal written by Matthiolus in 1544. The Spanish explorer Cortez had conquered Mexico City in 1521, and it is likely that he brought the tomato back with him. Matthiolus described tomatoes as being eaten with oil, salt, and pepper in Italy where they were called "golden apples." The northern European countries did not use tomatoes as food until the late 18th century. The earliest record of marketing tomatoes is from early 19th century.
Europe to America
In northern Europe, tomatoes were associated with the nightshade family of plants and thought to be poisonous. They were slow to gain popularity in America because of this. Thomas Jefferson is said to have served them at his table, but they did not become popular with the general public until the mid-19th century. In 1847, four tomato varieties were listed in a seed catalog. By 1863, there were 23 varieties listed, and they were cultivated across the country.
The name "heirloom tomato" derives from the practice of families saving their good tomato seeds and passing them down the generations. Heirloom varieties are often named for the area or family where they were cultivated and saved. The popular "Brandywine" was developed by Amish farmers near Brandywine Creek in Chester County, Pennsylvania in 1885. "Polish" is said to have been smuggled on the back of a postage stamp from Poland in the late 1800s.The variety called "Ace" was introduced by the Campbell's Soup Company in 1953. A cultivar named "Hopkins" is said to have grown on the estate of Edgar Allen Poe's mother.