The tomato is a savory, typically red, edible fruit, as well as the plant (Solanum lycopersicum) which bears it. Originating in South America, the tomato was spread around the world following the Spanish colonization of the Americas, and its many varieties are now widely grown, often in greenhouses in cooler climates. The tomato belongs to the nightshade family.
The scientific species name lycopersicum means "wolf peach", and comes from German werewolf myths. These said that deadly nightshade was used to summon werewolves, so the tomato's similar but much larger fruit was called the "wolf peach" when it arrived in Europe.
The Aztecs called the fruit xitomatl meaning plump thing with a navel. Other Mesoamerican peoples, including the Nahuas, took the name as tomatl, from which Europeans derived the name tomato.
Genetic evidence shows the progenitors of tomatoes were herbaceous green plants with small green fruit and a center of diversity in the highlands of Peru. One species, Solanum lycopersicum, was transported to Mexico where it was grown and consumed by Mesoamerican civilizations. The exact date of domestication is not known. The first domesticated tomato may have been a little yellow fruit, similar in size to a cherry tomato, grown by the Aztecs of Central Mexico. Aztec writings mention tomatoes were prepared with peppers, corn and salt.
Many historians believe that the Spanish explorer Cortés may have been the first to transfer the small yellow tomato to Europe after he captured the Aztec city of Tenochtítlan, now Mexico City, in 1521. Others believe Christopher Columbus, a Genoese working for the Spanish monarchy, was the first European to take back the tomato, as early as 1493. The earliest discussion of the tomato in European literature appeared in an herbal written in 1544 by Pietro Andrea Mattioli, an Italian physician and botanist who named it pomo d’oro, or "golden apple".
The earliest reference to tomatoes being grown in British North America is from 1710, when herbalist William Salmon reported seeing them in what is today South Carolina. They may have been introduced from the Caribbean. By the mid-18th century, they were cultivated on some Carolina plantations, and probably in other parts of the Southeast as well. It is possible that some people continued to think tomatoes were poisonous at this time; and in general, they were grown more as ornamental plants than as food. Thomas Jefferson, who ate tomatoes in Paris, sent some seeds back to America.
The tomato fruit is consumed in diverse ways, including raw, as an ingredient in many dishes and sauces, and in drinks. While it is botanically a fruit, it is considered a vegetable for culinary purposes (as well as by the United States Supreme Court, see Nix v. Hedden), which has caused some confusion. The fruit is rich in lycopene, which may have beneficial health effects.
The studies associated with the health benefits of tomatoes are practically too numerous to mention. Due to their high lycopene content, their complex of micro-nutrients, the high level of anti-oxidants, fiber, folate, and their anti-inflammatory properties, tomatoes have been shown to act as a preventative and to improve the health of those with cancer, especially prostate cancer, as well as being useful against depression, inflammation, bone mineralization, cardio-vascular disease and many more ills.
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