Is The Tomato Poisonous?

The first British reference to a tomato appeared in Henry Lyte’s A nieuwe Herball (1578), a direct translation of a Dutch work, and it is unlikely that he actually grew one. John Gerard certainly did, planting seeds from Spain, Italy, and “other hot countries” in his garden in Holborn, he reported in his Herball (1597). Two varieties, one red and the other yellow, of what he called Pomum Aureum and Poma Amoris, golden apples and love apples, are documented as growing in his garden in 1599.

Intriguingly, according to Elisabeth Whittle in Australian Garden History, (October 2016), Gerard may have been pipped to the post as Britain’s first tomato grower by Sir Edward Stradling, whose plants were raised in the grounds of his home, St Donat’s Castle in the Vale of Glamorgan. So unusual and famous were Sir Edward’s tomatoes that they were immortalised in a poem written by Dr Thomas Leyshon, who listed among the castle’s delights “golden apples” which “grow in the garden”. Leyshon’s poem, written before 1590, suggests that Sir Edward was growing tomatoes at least in the 1580s, probably well before Gerard.

Gerard, though, was much more influential in the botanical world and although he described the tomato in his Herball as having a “bright shining redde colour” and that they were eaten in Spain and other hot countries with salt, pepper, and oil, he was scathing as to their nutritional merits. They “yeelde very little nourishment to the bodie”. Indeed, he considered that “the whole plant” was “of ranke and stinking savour”.

Gerard’s damning indictment coupled with its association with the mandrake, itself a poisonous plant, was enough to establish the canard that the tomato too was toxic. Tomatoes as a food may have been good enough for foreigners, who, according to John Parkinson, the royal botanist in Charles I’s court, ate them to “coole and quench the heate and thirst of the hot stomaches”, but for the British they were just exotic plants grown purely for ornamental purposes, an attitude that persisted well until the 19th century.

In the intervening period tomatoes were known as “poison apples”. Their leaves do contain toxic alkaloids, including tomatine and solanine, but not in sufficient quantities to be deadly. An adult would have to eat about a pound of tomato leaves to become nauseous and their pungent smell would probably discourage all but the foolhardiest from gorging on them.

What tomatoes were served on posed a greater danger. The wealthy and aristocrats of Europe used pewter plates, which were high in lead content. The tomato is so high in acidity that it would leach lead from the plate, and many a diner would suffer from lead poisoning as a result, sometimes with fatal consequences. These poisonings further damaged the tomatoes reputation, no one thinking to make the connection between plate and poison.

It took some extraordinary steps by enthusiasts to rehabilitate the tomato’s reputation. In 1820 in Salem, New Jersey Robert Gibbon Johnson drew a crowd of curious onlookers by proclaiming that he was going to eat a tomato before their very eyes. Those expecting to him collapse frothing at the mouth were disappointed. He ate the tomato with no ill effects. Slowly, public confidence in the safety of the tomato grew.

New forms of storage such as the tin can, the emergence of a railway system, and the development of plate glass enabling large-scale commercial growers to operate all helped the tomatoes to establish a foothold in the British diet. By the 1880s such was the demand for tomatoes, which were commanding very lucrative prices at Covent Garden, that many commercial growers set up operations in Worthing. “Sunny Worthing’s” climate proved ideal for growing what became its most famous export, the tomato, and the independent nurseries employed thousands. By 1899 Worthing was known as a “town of hot-houses”, but sixty years later most of the nurseries had closed. British growers still produce about 20% of the tomatoes that we consume.

Thanks in no small part to John Gerard, what is a firm fixture in the British diet had a long battle to gain acceptance. Just do not serve them on pewter plates!

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