The common tomato, Solanum lycopersicon, is America's most popular garden crop. The cherry tomato is correctly classified as Solanum lycopersicum var. cerasiforme, and the tiny currant tomato is Solanum pimpinellifolium. The Solanum genus includes peppers, eggplants, potatoes, tobacco, Jimsonweed, belladonna (deadly nightshade) and petunia.
The tomato is native to Peru and other areas of South America, where it was discovered and transported back to Europe. It is possible that this happened as early as 1521, when Hernán Cortéz captured Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City) from the Aztecs. The tomato was first described in European literature in 1544, in the Italian botanist Pietro Andrea Mattioli's "Discorsi." He called it pomi d'oro, golden apple, which suggests that the tomato of his day was yellow rather than red. In a later century the French called it pomme d'amour, love apple.
Are Tomatoes Poisonous?
Most 16th-century Europeans, including the British, believed the tomato to be poisonous. We mock that belief now, but it had a foundation in fact---the leaves and stems are poisonous, and other members of the Solanums, the belladonna nightshades, are deadly. The tomato was slowly accepted as being edible, and by the mid-1800s the tomato was widely grown in Europe and North America. Thomas Jefferson grew and ate them at Monticello.
Vegetable or Fruit?
In a U.S. Supreme Court decision on May 10, 1893, in Nix v. Hedden, 149 U.S. 304 (1893), the court decided that the tomato is a vegetable, not a fruit. They were, of course, wrong---the tomato is without doubt botanically a fruit, which the court conceded---but Nix v. Hedden was over tariffs, not taxonomy.
Millions of Tons
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, in 2008 worldwide tomato production was almost 130 million tons. China produced almost 34 million tons, while the United States produced about 12 1/2 million tons. The next largest producers were Turkey (11 million tons), India (10 million tons) and Italy (6 million tons).
Naming and Classification
The name "tomato" comes from the Aztec word tomatl. In 1753, Carl Linnaeus classified the tomato as Solanum lycopersicum. This was changed to Lycopersicum esculentum by Philip Miller in 1768, which violated accepted plant naming rules, and the more accurate Lycopersicum lycopersicum was proposed in 1881 as an alternative. Both names are still widely and incorrectly used by universities and seed companies. Recent genetic evidence has confirmed that Linnaeus was right, and the correct name is now Solanum lycopersicum.