Tomato (Lycopersicon lycopersicum) is a member of the Solanaceae family, which includes potato, eggplant, pepper, tobacco and nightshades. Second to potato, tomato is one of the most widely grown vegetables in the world. Tomatoes are high in vitamins A and C, making them nutritionally important worldwide.
Tomatoes are indigenous to western South America, and are generally attributed to development in the Vera Cruz and Puebla regions of Mexico. However, the predecessor of the cultivated tomato may have originated from Ecuador, Peru and Chile, which later spread throughout South America. The introduction of the tomato to Europe may have been from Mexico. Being a member of the Solanaceae family, tomato was not widely received as an edible fruit in Europe initially because of its associations with members of the "nightshade" family. Other than its use in Italy, it was sometimes only used as an ornamental plant. Once accepted throughout Europe, tomato cultivation grew and spread internationally.
Cultivated Species and Varieties
Tomato is a perennial plant but grown as an annual in temperate climates. Some varieties will grow to an indeterminate height and others are strongly determinate (they stop growing taller once a physiological limit is reached), and they are usually self-pollinated.
Cherry tomatoes have small leaves and very round fruit and have an upright growth habit. Currant tomato is slender, very branched with many flowers and tiny fruit that grow in clusters and is a typically indeterminate growing plant. Grape tomatoes gained popularity beginning in the 1990's and are popular for their small size and very sweet taste. Other tomato types include plum tomatoes, salad tomatoes, paste/drying tomatoes and the ever-popular beefsteak varieties enjoyed sliced on sandwiches.
Tomatoes are usually annuals in temperate regions or can be short-living perennials in tropical regions. Typically, they grow on thick stems from 1 1/2 feet to 6 1/2 feet tall. Some tomatoes grow vine-like and require staking and others grow more like a bush. Botanically, tomato fruit is a fleshy berry and has a slightly fuzzy surface when young, but very smooth when mature. Color and shapes of tomatoes vary widely among cultivated varieties. Some tomatoes are yellow, some remain pink, and some are striped with shades of pink and red, as well as other combinations.
Tomatoes are grown throughout the world and are adaptable to many growing conditions, but they do have problems growing in very humid tropics, due to disease. They also have trouble growing in locations where the growing season is too short for adequate development. There are so many varieties available, however, with a range of characteristics, and with the ability to use greenhouses and container gardening, tomatoes can be successful most anywhere.
Tomatoes are very versatile, which can account for their popularity around the world. Tomatoes are a nutritious food, high in vitamins A and C, and are eaten raw, processed and cooked. Processed sauces, pastes, and diced tomatoes are some of the uses for the fruit of this plant. Home-grown tomatoes are among the most anticipated first fruits of the summer garden.