FRUIT BY ANY OTHER NAME
IN SPITE OF ITS LONG HISTORY, THE TOMATO IS A TENDER PLANT PRONE TO FUNGUS THAT STARVES IT OF WATER
Tomatoes are not vegetable but fruit. How often have you heard this one in a Trivial Pursuit game or quiz? The tomato is a fruit of a plant that is used as a vegetable. It’s the difference between who is doing the talking – a cook or a botanist or a horticulturist.
There are some other botanical gymnastics to consider about how the fruit originates and most fruit supports seeds in the flesh. But this is an unnecessary bit of trivia that probably would win you a game while boring the other contestants.
The tomato hails from the Aztec era and graduated in peasant cuisine, while the ruling classes got sick eating it. Nothing to do with its growing conditions; the acid contaminated their more advanced and stylish lead containers and leached poisons – while the working class, eating from wooden vessels, were okay.
Tomatoes were also understood to be one of the first fruits grown hydroponically on Lake Titicaca by the Incas on large floating platforms with compost and soils.
Tomato (solanum lycopersicum) is a member of the solanaceae family – the same as potatoes, petunias, bella donna, atropa (deadly nightshade) and datura. Perhaps the most infamous – apart from the toxic nightshades – is tobacco (nicotiana).
After their initial distribution around the world, there are few cultures that don’t use the two best-known members of the solanums in a kitchen – tomato and potato.
Tomatoes are tender plants and suffer quickly from fusarium wilt. This fungus makes its way through soil via water splashes and dribbles, rain wash and hose flooding. Fusarium shows up quickly as what appears to be a serious wilt, no matter how often you water the plant. The fungus blocks the water-carrying vessels in the plumbing of the plant and it effectively dies of thirst.
Because this fungus stays in the soil for a long time, don’t replant in the same spot. Planting beans or a legume that can fix nitrogen in the soil and help detoxify the media seems to have an effect. If you are growing in a large pot, tip the pot into the bin (admittedly it might become someone else’s problem, but is likely to die out with the heat that generates as the soil composts on itself).
So a tomato is a venerable fruit or vegetable however you see it. Smaller cherry, olive and tim thumb varieties will often grow across the wet season and into the dry. Bullocks heart and black russians varieties have limited lives from May to November and those gourmet types in the shops are a hard solid green when picked and gassed to a nice red for your enjoyment.
Look for a packet or supplier of heirlooms that has been turning out tasty tomatoes for decades. It’s worth the effort to get a firm tomato that can be cut with a reasonably sharp knife and tastes just like the ones grandad used to grow. Use plenty of seasol or similar product for regular feeding. These also have anti-fungus qualities.