More than 1.5 billion tons of tomatoes are produced annually each year around the world, according to Andrew F. Smith's "The Tomato in America." The colorful fruits of the tomato plant make their way into salads, juices, sauces, salsas and ketchup. After centuries of ever-growing popularity, this once-ignored mountain plant now grows from the tropics to sub-Arctic Alaska (via greenhouses) and holds its place as the most common commercially-prepared vegetable.
Nine species of tomato make up the genus Lycopersicon, and seven are inedible, small hard fruits, according to New York biologist and tomato expert Carolyn J. Male. Edible species include L. esculentum, the garden tomato, and L. pimpinellifolium, the currant tomato. Inedible species comprise L. cheesmanii, L. parviflorum, L. chmielewskii, L. hirsutum f. glabratum, L. pennellii, L. chilense and L. peruvianum.
The garden tomato originated like all other tomato species in the coastal mountain regions of Chile and Peru, where they resembled small, smooth cherry tomatoes. Local residents did not eat them, but they spread to Central America by birds and animals, where the Maya became the first group to cultivate the tomato. Spanish explorers distributed tomato seeds to the Philippines, where they spread to Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, Italy and Spain, and ultimately the rest of continental Europe.
A visiting Englishman, William Salmon, noted tomatoes growing in the Carolinas in 1680s. Thomas Jefferson imported tomato seeds from France in the early 1780s, according to Male's book "100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden." By 1827, growers in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston could buy tomato seeds.
By the mid-1800s, contemporaneous accounts of tomatoes noted shapes resembling cherries pears, plums and eggs. In the late 1800s, seed companies began selling seeds to the public. Early varieties included Acme (1875), Triumph (1879) and Early Ruby (1891). By the mid-1930s, seed companies began to create hybrids by crossing two varieties. Burpee Seeds released its Burpee Hybrid in 1945, followed in 1949 by and the wildly successful Big Boy. The latter makes many experts' lists of top five tomatoes, given its vigor and disease resistance, according to Arkansas extension horticulturalist Gerald Klingaman. In 1975, Kent and Diane Whealy founded Seed Savers Exchange to preserve tomato and other heirlooms from the pre-hybrid era.
Colonial Americans shunned tomatoes, considering them poisonous, and gardening historians report that in many U.S. regions, they were not grown as an agricultural crop until well after 1860. In 1820, Robert Gibbon Johnson ate a tomato on the Salem, New Jersey courthouse steps and survived to demonstrate that tomatoes were good to eat.