Where Are Tomato Plants From? (5 Interesting Tomato Facts)


Tomato plants are one of the most popular plants in the world, and they are found in gardens everywhere.  However, the origin of tomato plants is a long and interesting story – they had to travel great distances over a long time period to go from “poison” to popular!

So, where are tomato plants from?  Tomato plants are from tropical regions in South America (Chile, Ecuador, Peru, and the Galapagos Islands).  From America, tomatoes were brought back to Europe by Spanish explorers.  They soon spread throughout the world to Italy, England, India, China, the U.S., and beyond.

Of course, tomatoes did not always look like they do today.  The ancestors of today’s tomato plants did not have such large fruit, and the flavor was almost certainly much different.

In this article, we’ll talk about where tomato plants are from and how they moved around the world. 

Let’s begin.

Where Are Tomato Plants From?

Tomato plants are from tropical regions of South America.  They are thought to originate from the countries of Chile, Ecuador, and Peru (possibly in the Andes mountains).

tomato plant no leaves
The original tomato plants grew in tropical parts of South America, with fruit no larger than cherries.

Tomato plants have 16 wild relatives that are native to a coastal area of northwestern South America that includes Ecuador to Chile and the Galapagos Islands.

Tomatoes grow as perennials and can live for many years without the threat of winter cold and frost.  However, they are often grown as annuals in cold regions, replaced each year with new plants grown from seed.

Tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) is a member of the genus Solanum within the Solanaceae family (nightshade).  The nightshade family also includes:

  • Eggplant
  • Peppers
  • Potatoes
  • Petunia
  • Tobacco
  • Tomatillos
purple bell peppers
Peppers are a member of the same family as tomatoes (nightshade), along with eggplant, potatoes, and more!

Tomatoes have spread throughout the world, and they are grown commercially on a large scale.  They are also the most common and popular plant in U.S. gardens – but how did they travel so far and wide?

Let’s take a look back through history to find the origin of the tomato plant.  To do that, we need to start in South America.

When Did Humans Start Eating Tomatoes?

According to the University of Illinois Extension, small tomatoes (cherry-sized) were found in Ecuador 80,000 years ago.  This was long before any human being cultivated them for their fruit.

Eventually, people in Central and Southern (such as the Aztecs and Mayans) began to grow tomatoes, but their size remained unchanged for a long time.  Over time, tomatoes spread further north thanks to humans, birds, or other natural means.

Yucatan pyramid
The Aztecs and Mayans grew tomatoes for thousands of years before Europe or Asia ever saw the plants.

Tomatoes were domesticated in America about 7,000 years ago.  For thousands of years, the people of South America had tomatoes all to themselves!

Then, in the 16th and 17th centuries, Spanish explorers (such as the conquistador Hernan Cortes) from Europe discovered tomatoes from people they met in South America.  These explorers crossed the sea to bring tomatoes back to Europe.

According to Britanica, some people in Europe believed tomatoes were toxic.  This is only partially correct – the leaves and roots contain solanine (a toxic substance), but the fruit is safe to eat (luckily for us!)

At the time, however, this belief about toxic tomato fruit was perfectly reasonable.  Botanists of the time knew that tomatoes were related to poisonous or deadly nightshade plants, such as belladonna.

As a result, the new tomato plant was slow to gain popularity as a food in Europe.  At first, the French grew tomatoes as an ornamental plant.

Spain and Italy were two of the first countries to adopt the tomato in their cuisine.  In fact, Italians called the tomato “pomodoro”, which translates to “golden apple”.

This has caused speculation that the original tomatoes brought to Europe were yellow.  This may also be perfectly reasonable, since there are tomatoes of every color available today, including: red, pink, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, black, and white!

yellow tomatoes
There are lots of tomatoes with various colors today, including yellow (which may have been the original color of the fruit).

Are Tomatoes Native To Italy?

Tomatoes are not native to Italy.  As mentioned earlier, tomatoes were brought to Italy in the 16th or 17th century, where they eventually caught on as an important part of the cuisine.

Who Brought Tomatoes To Italy?

The Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes brought tomatoes from America back to Europe.  Tomatoes reached Italy by 1548 – there is a record of a delivery of a basket of tomatoes to the grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo de Medici on October 31 of that year.

When Did Tomatoes Come To India?

Tomatoes came to India in the 16th century, brought by Portuguese explorers.  The plant is well-adapted to the warm climate in India.

When Did Tomatoes Come To China?

Tomatoes came to China in the 1500’s, possibly from the Phillippines or Macau.  To this day, tomato scrambled eggs are a popular dish in China.

When Did Tomatoes Come To The UK?

Tomatoes came to the UK in the late 1500’s and were grown for centuries.  However, as in other European countries, the British believed that tomatoes were not fit for human consumption (perhaps due to the association with some poisonous nightshade plants).

tomato plant with fruit
Originally thought to be toxic, tomatoes were eventually grown as a source of food.

By the middle of the 18th century, tomatoes had gained popularity as food (rather than as a garden curiosity).

When Did Tomatoes Come To America?

Tomatoes were grown in North America as early as 1710 (and perhaps even earlier).  Some people may have still thought they were poisonous, but even so they were grown in gardens as ornamental (if not for eating).

Tomatoes were also grown on some plantations in the Carolinas and other parts of the Southeast United States.  In fact, Thomas Jefferson tried tomatoes in Paris and enjoyed them so much that he decided to ship seeds back to North America.

tomato seeds
Thomas Jefferson sent tomatoes seeds back to American from Paris, and grew the plant himself.

Alexander Livingston receives credit for cultivating many tomato varieties for both home gardeners and commercial farmers.  To this day, warmer climates in the U.S. (such as Florida and southern California) are major tomato growers.

Where Do Tomato Plants Grow?

Tomato plants are grown all over the world, and it is one of the most popular garden plants in many countries.

Tomato plants will grow in most plant hardiness zones.  However, frost and freezing temperatures will do them in at the end of the growing season in all but the warmest climates.

frosted leaf
Frost will end the growing season for tomatoes in all but the warmest climates (unless you have a heated greenhouse!)

Tomato plants need full sunlight to grow to their full potential.  However, the fruit itself does not need sun exposure to ripen (in fact, too much sun or heat can prevent proper ripening of tomatoes!)

Why Was The Tomato Feared In Europe?

The tomato was feared in Europe because it was thought to be poisonous.  This was a reasonable fear: the leaves and roots of tomato plants are in fact toxic (they contain solanine).

tomato plant
Tomato leaves and roots contain the toxic substance solanine, but the fruit does not.

In addition, botanists at the time knew that the tomato was related to nightshade plants (such as belladonna), many of which were poisonous.  However, there was another reason that the tomato was feared in Europe.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, wealthy Europeans ate tomatoes from lead plates.  The acid in tomatoes would cause the fruit to take up lead from the plate.

The result was sickness or death from lead poisoning.  The cause was the lead in the plates, but the tomato got the blame for many years.

Conclusion

Now you know where tomato plants came from and how they spread around the world. You also know some interesting facts about tomatoes and how they became so popular.

I hope you found this article helpful.  If so, please share it with someone who can use the information.

If you want to read some of my most popular posts, check out the “Best of GreenUpSide” page here.  Enjoy!

~Jonathon

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

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