Tomatoes: Fruit or Vegetable?

May 17, 2012

Fruit or vegetable? Genetically, the tomato is a fruit, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was a vegetable.

Credit: Doreen G. Howard
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Last blog I asked you what edibles you would plant if you were limited to only three.  The response was overwhelming, with tomatoes topping everyone’s list. 

This week, I’m sharing a few bits of tomato trivia and a number of gardening tips for big, healthy harvest.

In 1893, the United States Supreme Court ruled that since tomatoes are most often served during the main part of the meal, either alone or with vegetables that tomatoes must be vegetables. Tomatoes are really fruits biologically speaking, but either way they are delicious!

The first wild tomatoes found by explorers in Mexico were yellow and small.  Red, pink, black, green, ivory, white and bi-colors came later from the rampant mutation of tomatoes.  Larger sizes and pleated and odd shapes appeared, too. 

Tomatoes are promiscuous; their anthers extend beyond the flower, trapping pollen from other tomatoes grown within 100 feet.

tomatoes: fruit or vegetable

Fuzzy, yellow Garden Peach tomatoes are genetically closer to the original wild tomato than are red ones.

Europeans didn’t embrace “poison apples”, as they called them until the invention of the pizza in 1880 by the Italians.  Royalty used lead trenchers for tableware, and the acid of tomatoes sucked up the lead and sickened or killed regal diners. Poor people used wood trenchers and ate tomatoes with abandon, as they were plentiful and cheap.

Tomatoes are easy to grow if you take care of their needs in advance.  Pests won't be a  problem either.

Tomato Tips

  • Plant the right tomato for your climate.  Determinate or bush types produce their entire crop in a few weeks.  They are perfect for short seasons.  Indeterminates, or plants that keep on growing and producing until a killing freeze, do well in hotter climates with long growing seasons.  Or plant both types.  You’ll have a large harvest in mid-summer from determinates and a smaller, but steady supply of indeterminate tomatoes until frost.
  • Don’t over-feed plants.  Tomatoes produce best with slow-release fertilizers that deliver small amounts of nutrients continually.  Fast-release fertilizers result in ten-foot plants and no tomatoes.
  • Mulch plants thickly with straw, shredded leaves or any other organic matter.  This keeps soil moisture even and prevents fungal spores, which spread diseases over plants, from splashing up from the soil on to plant foliage.
  • Blossom-end rot is caused by inconsistent soil moisture, not lack of calcium in the ground. There is usually plenty of it in most soils, but calcium depends on water to transport it to plant roots.  So, mulch heavily and deliver at least 1 inch of water to plants weekly.
  • Withhold water for 3 to 4 days before harvesting.  Tomatoes will be sweeter and more flavorful.
  • Don’t refrigerate tomatoes for the best flavor.  Pick the day you want to use them or harvest them slightly green, eating the tomatoes as they ripen.
  • When killing freezes threaten, pick all the green tomatoes.  Place them in a single layer in cardboard boxes and store in a warm, dry area.  Tomatoes will ripen within two to three months, lengthening your harvest.  Think home-grown tomatoes for Christmas!

Homegrown tomatoes make fast, tasty salads if you slice them thinly.  Use at least two colors for a salad any gourmet would love.

  • For an eye-catching gourmet salad, thinly slice three different colored tomatoes, arrange slices on a bed of leaf lettuce, strew with freshly sliced basil and crumbles of Feta cheese and drizzle with olive oil and wine vinegar.

See the Almanac's Tomato page for more planting, growing, and harvesting tips.

Questions about tomato plant care?  Post to our blogs or any gardening pages!

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Doreen Howard has written for The Old Farmer's Almanac All-Seasons Garden Guide for 15 years and is the former garden editor at Woman’s Day as well as a photographer. She has grown more than 300 varieties of heirloom edibles and flowers in the last two decades.

In stores now!

Look for Doreen's newest book, Heirloom Flavor: Yesterday's Best-Tasting Vegetables, Fruits and Herbs for Today's Cook. Find in stores everywhere including Walmart and on the Web including amazon.com.

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Comments

Excellent blog post. I

By Barbara A.

Excellent blog post. I appreciate the correct information on blossom end rot. However, tomatoes are not generally "promiscuous", very few have exerted STIGMAS (the female part that receives pollen) and the cross pollination rate in home gardens is around 5% with distance of 5 feet between plants. Highly unlikely a tomato plant will cross pollinate with another tomato 100 feet away.

If you pick your tomatoes

By Steve S

If you pick your tomatoes green and put them in a warm dry place, should it be light or dark? or does it matter?

A light place makes green

By Doreen G. Howard

A light place makes green tomatoes ripen faster. Tomatoes in dark spaces ripen, but at a much slower rate. It's your choice!

Another way of extending your

By Kathy Suminsby

Another way of extending your harvest: When frost is expected, water plant, then dig it, and bag roots in plastic bag. Tie bag top snuggly around stem and knot ends into a loop. Hang upside down in basement or place where plants won't freeze. This works best with cherry tomatoes. I've picked some in January before! This method doesn't deal with oft rotted tomatoes .

Its interesting that you note

By Mrs T

Its interesting that you note how tomatoes were declared a vegetable while biologically they are a fruit. According to Jewish law, the blessing made on tomatoes is 'haadama' - which is usually made on vegetables while 'haeitz' is made on fruit. I think this actually has to do with the fact that tomatoes are grown as low plants and not in a tree per se.
Anyway, I"m trying to grow tomatoes for the first time ever - so thanks for the tips.
What do you think of the small plants this far?
http://mygoinggreenblog.blogspot.com/2012/05/how-to-grow-tomatoes-from-seed.html

Interesting bit of history,

By Doreen G. Howard

Interesting bit of history, Mrs. T. Your plants look great!

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