QuickCheck: Were tomatoes bred from a poisonous plant?

YOU eat them raw in your salads, puree them for your pizza sauce or cube them and stick them in your rice cooker to make "nasi tomato". Tomatoes are ubiquitous and used in some shape or form in almost every type of cuisine on the planet. As popular as this berry masquerading as a vegetable is, its roots actually stem from a darker past.

Is it true that the tomato plant was bred from a poisonous plant?



The tomato plant was first domesticated in western South America approximately around 500 BC and only became common in the Old World after conquistadors brought it back from Mexico after they sacked and burned down the great city of Tenochtitlan in 1521.

When it was brought to Europe, it was initially grown as an ornamental plant as botanists there recognised it as a nightshade plant – in other words a relative of the deadly belladonna plant that had long been used for assassinations in the Old World.

However, over centuries, intrepid South Americans had tamed the savage plant to become a more docile version of its vicious cousin.

The leaves of the plant are still a bit poisonous as it contains tomatine, but you would have to eat large amounts of it for it to be toxic.

By the 16th century, most folk in Europe became used to the idea of eating tomatoes and started spreading the plant to the rest of the world either via trade or colonisation.

The Italians took a while longer to accept tomatoes as edible, but when they did they incorporated it wholesale into their cuisine. This was around the early 17th century.

In fact, one of the earliest discovered cookbooks with tomatoes used in a recipe was published in Naples (then an independent city state but now part of Italy) in 1692, though the author had apparently obtained these recipes from Spanish sources.

As a side note, tomatoes are not the only members of nightshade family to be domesticated – also in the family are potatoes, chillies, bell peppers and brinjals.

Brinjals, being the odd one out, was not first domesticated in South America but has its roots in India.

All of them are slightly toxic in the parts you don't usually eat such as the leaves, stems or flowers but as with tomatoes, you would have to eat a huge amount before you start to feel the effects.


1. https://archive.org/details/tomatoinamericae00smit_0

2. https://www.britannica.com/plant/tomato

3. https://pomodoro.museidelcibo.it/en/audio-guides-2/

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