Plant 93

Solanum lycopersicum L. (Solanaceae)



Tomatoes have been part of European life for fewer than 500 years. The rise of tomatoes as flexible ingredients in the European kitchen came on the back of deep suspicions that they were poisonous or at best of only ornamental value.

Eighteenth-century English botanist Philip Miller placed tomatoes into the genus Lycopersicon, a small group distributed from the southwestern Andes and Galapagos Islands, whilst the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus included tomatoes in the very large genus Solanum; modern DNA-based analyses favour Linnaeus's view.

Tomatoes appear to have been domesticated in two phases. The first phase of domestication occurred in Ecuador and northern Peru and involved the transformation of the wild, tiny-fruited Solanum pimpinellifolium into weedy Solanum lycopersicum var. cerasiforme, somewhat akin to the cherry tomato. During a second Central American phase of domestication, this weedy tomato became the tomato with which we are familiar today.

We do not know when the Spanish brought the tomato to Europe but by the end of the sixteenth century, the English herbalist John Gerard was referring to them as 'apple of Loue' or 'Poma Amoris', whilst John Parkinson reported the English 'onely haue them [tomatoes] for curiosity … and for the amorous aspect or beauty of the fruit'.

Thousands of tomato cultivars have been bred for growing under diverse conditions for diverse uses, including pulping, drying and juicing. As few as four genes appear to be responsible for the eight broad classes of tomato shape, which range from the flattened beefsteak through rectangular plum and familiar round types to heart- and pear-shaped types. Tomatoes are usually thought of as being red, although they can be everything from orange and yellow to dark purple, with individual fruits varying greatly in size from 5 mm to 10 cm diameter.

Tomatoes were a cause of suspicion as sceptical European consumers have become concerned about revolutionary plant breeding technologies. Tomatoes were the first genetically modified plants endorsed for human consumption. The Flavr Saver tomato was genetically modified to slow the ripening process whilst retaining its natural colour and flavour. Released in the United States of America in 1994, the tomato was withdrawn from commercial sale in 1997. At a similar time, in the United Kingdom, a separate genetic modification was incorporated into a tomato used for paste production. The paste was commercially successful but was withdrawn as mistrust over genetically modified food became widespread in Britain and Europe.

Further reading

Blanca J et al. 2012. Variation revealed by SNP genotyping and morphology provides insight into the origin of the tomato. PLoS ONE 7: e48198.

Martineau B 2001. First fruit: the creation of the Flavr Savr tomato and the birth of biotech food. McGraw-Hill Education.

Monforte AJ et al. 2014. The genetic basis of fruit morphology in horticultural crops: lessons from tomato and melon. Journal of Experimental Botany 65: 4625-4637.

Peralta IE et al. 2008. Taxonomy of wild tomatoes and their relatives (Solanum sect. Lycopersicoides, sect. Juglandifolia, sect. Lycopersicon; Solanaceae). American Society of Plant Taxonomists.

Stephen Harris

The 25th July 2021 marks 400 years of botanical research and teaching by the University of Oxford.

As a celebration and count-down to this anniversary, the University of Oxford Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum, together with the Oxford University Herbaria and the Department of Plant Sciences, will highlight 400 plants of scientific and cultural significance. One plant will be profiled weekly, and illustrated with images from Oxford University's living and preserved collections.

  • Plant 92: Zea mays
  • Plant 91: Dionaea muscipula
  • Plant 90: Eryngium sp.
  • Plant 89: Mimosa pudica
  • Plant 88: Pinus nigra
  • Plant 87: Catharanthus roseus
  • Plant 86: Lantana camara
  • Plant 85: Stipa gigantea
  • Plant 84: Gunnera manicata
  • Plant 83: Rosa chinensis
  • Plant 82: Aconitum napellus
  • Plant 81: Pteridium aquilinum
  • Plant 80: Wisteria sinensis
  • Plant 79: Passiflora alata
  • Plant 78: Matteuccia struthiopteris
  • Plant 77: Acer carpinifolium
  • Plant 76: Vicia faba
  • Plant 75: Calycanthus floridus
  • Plant 74: Primula auricula
  • Plant 73: Strongylodon macrobotrys
  • Plant 72: Capsella bursa-pastoris
  • Plant 71: Barnadesia caryophylla
  • Plant 70: Erythronium dens-canis
  • Plant 69: Trifolium dubium
  • Plant 68: Forsythia spp.
  • Plant 67: Ananas comosus
  • Plant 66: Theobroma cacao
  • Plant 65: Nostoc sp.
  • Plant 64: Sciadopitys verticillata
  • Plant 63: Garrya elliptica
  • Plant 62: Psilotum nudum
  • Plant 61: Cyclamen species
  • Plant 60: Hevea brasiliensis
  • Plant 59: Semele androgyna
  • Plant 58: Monstera deliciosa
  • Plant 57: Musa textilis
  • Plant 56: Piper nigrum
  • Plant 55: Viscum album
  • Plant 54: Dieffenbachia seguine
  • Plant 53: Salvinia molesta
  • Plant 52: Saccharum officinarum
  • Plant 51: Metasequoia glyptostroboides
  • Plant 50: Equisetum sp.
  • Plant 49: Fraxinus excelsior
  • Plant 48: Rosmarinus officinalis
  • Plant 47: Ptelea trifoliata
  • Plant 46: Acer saccharum
  • Plant 45: Brassica oleracea
  • Plant 44: Helianthus annuus
  • Plant 43: Ricinus communis
  • Plant 42: Simmondsia chinensis
  • Plant 41: Chara sp.
  • Plant 40: Zingiber officinale
  • Plant 39: Aristolochia clematitis
  • Plant 38: Allium cepa
  • Plant 37: Galium tricornutum
  • Plant 36: Artemisia annua
  • Plant 35: Rosa canina
  • Plant 34: Nepenthes rajah
  • Plant 33: D. caryophyllus x barbatus
  • Plant 32: Taraxacum sp.
  • Plant 31: Victoria cruziana
  • Plant 30: Lathyrus odoratus
  • Plant 29: Heliconia rostrata
  • Plant 28: Senecio squalidus
  • Plant 27: Paulownia tomentosa
  • Plant 26: Urtica dioica
  • Plant 25: Euphorbia characias
  • Plant 24: Heliamphora nutans
  • Plant 23: Laurus nobilis
  • Plant 22: Tulipa sylvestris
  • Plant 21: Pleurococcus sp.
  • Plant 20: Gleditsia triacanthos
  • Plant 19: Tillandsia usneoides
  • Plant 18: Marchantia polymorpha
  • Plant 17: Daphne mezereum
  • Plant 16: Citrus medica
  • Plant 15: Coffea arabica
  • Plant 14: Gossypium species
  • Plant 13: Stachyurus praecox
  • Plant 12: Encephalartos ferox
  • Plant 11: Aloe vera
  • Plant 10: Araucaria angustifolia
  • Plant 9: Isoetes echinospora
  • Plant 8: Hamamelis virginiana
  • Plant 7: Lithops species
  • Plant 6: Sequoiadendron giganteum
  • Plant 5: Commiphora saxicola
  • Plant 4: Buxus sempervirens
  • Plant 3: Picea abies
  • Plant 2: Cinnamomum verum
  • Plant 1: Taxus baccata

  • Follow us on Twitter @Plants400

    The data and images available on this site may only be used for scientific purposes. They may not be sold or used for commercial purposes. All images are copyright of the University of Oxford, unless otherwise indicated.

    The specimens at the Oxford herbaria and the living collections of the Oxford Botanic Garden and Oxford University Herbaria are being digitized using BRAHMS.


    Dr Stephen Harris (