The Great Tomato


I’ve been reading a wonderful book entitled, “The Great American Tomato Book” by Robert Hendrickson. Published in 1977, it gives an interesting insight into the history and culture of the tomato and how this fruit has become dominant in American vegetable gardens.

The tomato plant is native to the South and Central America, coming from the countries we today call Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. Mayans are believed to have brought tomatoes to the Yucatan and it was the Spanish Conquistador Cortez that brought them back to Europe.

Originally, their Aztec name was “tomatl”. In Europe it acquired the nickname “Love Apple” and throughout much of the European continent was believed to be poisonous.

In truth, all parts of the tomato plant are, in fact, toxic. Tomato plants, and others in the Solanaceae family contain dangerous alkaloids. Related plants include tobacco, nightshade, and potatoes.

Yet even as much of Europe came to appreciate the wonderful, nutritious and edible tomato fruit, it was a man by the name of Colonel Robert Giddon Johnson that demonstrated the tomato as an edible fruit in the United States.

Johnson had experienced tomato dishes in his travels abroad in the early 1800’s and had become a big proponent of the tomato. But at the time, tomatoes were grown for no more than an ornamental plant.

In 1820 in Salem, New Jersey, Johnson announced that we would prove that tomatoes were edible by eating a bushel of them at high noon on Sept 26. On the appointed day, a crowd formed to watch Johnson commit certain suicide. His own physician, Dr. Van Meeter, told the audience that the foolish Colonel would foam and froth at the mouth and double over with great pain before dying. Even a band was assembled and played a funeral dirge.

At high noon that day, Johnson held a tomato high in the air for the crowd to see. It was estimated about 2,000 people were there to see him eat the bushel of tomatoes. With great flair he took his first bite. Then another and another. At least one spectator was reported to have screamed or fainted with each successive tomato he ate.

Only after the last tomato was eaten did the doctor slink away, the crowd cheered, and the band stuck up a victory march.

Tomatoes today enjoy quite the status in vegetable gardens. Among avid gardeners, you can easily stir up an argument by claiming one variety is best or that you have the best method of raising them.

Tomatoes are certainly a warm season crop, that need to be planted outside in the garden only after all chance of frost is gone. Rarely would you ever plant tomato seeds in your garden as that wouldn’t give them enough time to grow and produce. To get a head start on tomatoes, it is highly recommended that you plant transplants after all danger of frost is past.

For the truest gardener, right now is high time to start seeds indoors so that they will have enough time to grow before planting.

For all gardeners, start preparing your soil now for that late March to early April planting. As always, be sure to incorporate an abundance of organic matter. How much? If you added 3-4 inches of compost down the row and tilled that in, it wouldn’t be too much! Adding a complete fertilizer just before you plant at the rate of 2 lbs. per 100 square feet of garden bed would be another great addition.

Remember that most tomato varieties will stop bearing fruit when the temperatures get consistently over 92 degrees, so our window for tomato fruit production may be short.

I’ve got fourteen Big Boy tomato seedlings started at present. I’m excited to see how this vegetable, once believed to be toxic, will turn out in my garden this spring.


Cary Sims
Cary Sims
Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. His email address is

Educational programs of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service are open to all people without regard to race, color, sex, disability, religion, age, or national origin.

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