The History of Tomatoes in America

Tomatoes were not always grown in North America. A quick look at the history of tomatoes shows that the plant was originally domesticated by Mesoamerican people.

| April 2015

  • Green Tomato
    By the early nineteenth century, tomatoes were present in many towns across America, though many people didn’t eat them for a variety of reasons.
    Photo by Shoe Heel Factory
  • History of Tomatoes
    Early seed catalogs went to fanciful extremes to try to convince customers that their tomato varieties were the most appealing.
    Photo courtesy Craig LeHoullier
  • Livingston Tomatoes
    The Livingston Seed Company created many of the most widely grown, important new tomato varieties between 1879 and 1930.
    Photo courtesy Craig LeHoullier
  • Epic Tomatoes
    Grow and harvest the best tomatoes ever with this practical and beautiful guide, “Epic Tomatoes” by Craig LeHoullier.
    Cover courtesy Storey Publishing

  • Green Tomato
  • History of Tomatoes
  • Livingston Tomatoes
  • Epic Tomatoes

Savor your best tomato harvest ever with Epic Tomatoes (Epic Tomatoes, 2015) by Craig LeHoullier, a tomato adviser for Seed Savers Exchange. Epic Tomatoes offers everything a tomato enthusiast needs to know about growing more than 200 varieties of tomatoes. This excerpt, which discusses how tomatoes became popular in America, is from Chapter1, “The Origins of Today’s Tomato.” 

Buy this book from the GRIT store: Epic Tomatoes.

Tomatoes Come to North America

The Mayans and other Mesoamerican people domesticated the tomato plant and first used it in cooking. A mutation was likely responsible for converting the small two-chambered wild types into the larger, lumpy, multi-chambered fruit that represents the vast majority of today’s tomatoes. It is the large tomatoes that were nurtured and developed by Central American farmers. The Aztecs named the plant xitomatl, or large tomatl.

How it was introduced to British North America is a matter of speculation; there are a number of possibilities. The Spanish (who brought tomatoes back from Mexico during the 1520s and then distributed them throughout the Spanish empire and into Asia) consumed tomatoes; they’d had settlements in Florida earlier in the seventeenth century, which could account for tomato introduction into what is now Georgia and the Carolinas. French Huguenot refugees and British colonists could have also brought seeds directly to the Carolinas. Or tomatoes could have come here from the Caribbean, since migration from the British West Indies to the southern colonies began in the late seventeenth century. Some historians consider the Caribbean route to be the most likely, because the term tomato was part of the local language. Whatever the mode of introduction, tomatoes were cultivated in the Carolinas by the middle of the eighteenth century.



“That Sour Trash”

By the early nineteenth century, tomatoes were present in many towns across America, though it appears most people didn’t eat them, for a variety of reasons. First, many colonists from England, Scotland, and Ireland came here before the tomato was commonly eaten in their homeland.

Next, America was physically isolated from the rest of the world leading up to that time, so most people had no idea how popular the tomato was becoming in Europe. Finally, even where there was expanding knowledge of how to grow tomatoes, few recipes were published in books prior to the 1820s.



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