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The fruit today known as a tomato was first introduced to Europe during Shakespeare’s lifetime. As many new things were, this fruit was received at first with skepticism, considered a kind of curiosity. It was called a golden apple, as well as a “pomi d’oro” in Italy. When Shakespeare was born (1564) the tomato was already in Italy for 20 years. They may have arrived in England during Shakespeare’s lifetime. In Italy, they knew you could eat them (fried in oil like mushrooms, says the first description). But in other countries, it took some time before people ate them. In several places, including England, many considered the fruit dangerous, poisonous, and something that was pleasing to the eye, but secretly treacherous. Shakespeare echoes this sentiment in his play, Pericles, when he writes about “golden fruit but dangerous to be touched.” Today we are going to explore the arrival, reception, cultivation, and use of tomatoes for 16th century Italy, Germany, and Belgium, with our guest and author of the article “Sixteenth-century tomatoes in Europe: who saw them, what they looked like, and where they came from” , Tinde van Andel.
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Tinde van Andel is a Dutch ethnobotanist and senior researcher at Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, The Netherlands. She holds the Clusius chair in History of Botany and Gardens at Leiden University and a chair in Ethnobotany at Wageningen University. She has done research on medicinal and ritual plants in Suriname and western Africa. Her current project focuses on tracing the origins of Maroon rice in Suriname and French Guiana by integrating ethnobotany, history and genomics.
I’ll be asking Tinde Van Andel about:
- Tinde’s article on 16th century tomatoes points out that Renaissance botanists who were drawing pictures of tomatoes in this time period, often neglected to identify where the sample they were investigating had actually been sourced. Tinde, what information do we have about where tomatoes were coming from when they were first imported to Europe during Shakespeare’s lifetime?
- Were tomatoes in the 16th century all one color or a specific shape?
- What were the name given to this plant in the 16th century—was it always called a tomato, or were there other names assigned to this fruit?
- …and more!
Resources Recommended by Our Guest
The story about the first tomatoes that were brought to Europe and cultivated in Italian Renaissance gardens:
TR van Andel, RA Vos, E Michels, A Stefanaki. 2022. Sixteenth-century tomatoes in Europe: who saw them, what they looked like, and where they came from. PeerJ 10, e12790 https://peerj.com/articles/12790/
One of the oldest dried tomato specimens is preserved in the beautiful En Tibi book herbarium from 1558, a gift to the Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand I:
A Stefanaki, H Porck, IM Grimaldi, N Thurn, V Pugliano, A Kardinaal, J Salemink, G Thijsse, C Chavannes-Mazel, E Kwakkel, T van Andel. 2019. Breaking the silence of the 500-year-old smiling garden of everlasting flowers: the En Tibi book herbarium. PLoS ONE 14 (6), e0217779. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0217779
All the beautiful specimens of this 16th century book herbaria can be viewed at:
The detailed, but never published aquarels of Conrad Gesner can be viewed at the website of the Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen, Germany.
https://ub.fau.de/history/botanische-werke/ see the two volumes under “zwei Bände mit Pflanzenaquarellen” and then click ‘thumbnails’.
“He dies that touches any of this fruit…”— As You Like It (II.7))
Not many botanists recorded the source of their samples
Tinde’s article on 16th century tomatoes points out that Renaissance botanists who were drawing pictures of tomatoes in this time period, often neglected to identify where the sample they were investigating had actually been sourced. As a result, we have to use deductive reasoning when investigating the journey of tomatoes to England.
In Italy, they knew you could eat them (fried in oil like mushrooms, says the first description). But in other countries, it took some time before people ate them.
By the time the Spanish conquered Central America, tomatoes were already domesticated and cultivated in Mexico by the Aztecs and in Peru by the Incas. The Spanish conquistadores must have brought them to Spain, to show them to the King, but we have no archival evidence of this. They must have planted the seeds in the Royal gardens of Madrid, but we don’t know whether archival data of these events have survived, as the Spanish and the Portuguese do not provide access to these sources so easily and did not have the tradition to publish scientific work about their colonial encounters. Only when the tomato seeds end up in northern Italy, where the first botanists draw, describe, collect and publish about new and exotic plants, we see that tomatoes are appearing in the gardens of Pisa, Florence, Bologna, Venice, etc.
“Then it will be the earliest fruit i’ th’ country…”— As You Like It (III.2)
Tomatoes in the 16th century were a variety of colors and shapes
One source we have for what tomatoes in the 16th century looked like visually is in the detailed drawings of botanists. In exploring the history of these scientists, we discover that many of them wrote about their discoveries but were not widely published in their lifetimes. Not having been published publicly, there’s room to question how wide spread the knowledge of these recorded species might have been.
Not all 16th century botanists had sufficient money, fame and networks to publish their work. One famous botanist who did have financial support was Pietro Andrea Matthioli, who was the first to publish a description of the tomato. He writes that tomatoes were large, flattened and segmented, and of a golden color when ripe. For centuries, people thought that the first tomatoes were yellow, flat and segmented. However, when we look at the herbarium specimens and the beautiful drawings of other 16th century botanists who did not have such wealthy friends as Matthioli, we see that tomatoes came in many different shapes, sizes and colors: tiny red balls, big green fruits, orange, etc.
“Before thee stands this fair Hesperides, With golden fruit, but dangerous to be touch’d…”— Pericles (I.1)
Tomato was called “the golden fruit”
In English the word “tomato” was applied to this fruit much later than Shakespeare’s lifetime.
One of the early names for tomatoes were pomum amoris (Latin), and people have translated this to ‘pomme d’amour’ (love apple), while actually it is more likely that they meant ‘pome d’oro’ (golden apple) or ‘pome dei Moro’ (apple of the Moors). The Arabs in Spain (Moors) had already introduced the eggplant (aubergine) and the early botanist said that tomatoes were a ‘new type of eggplant’. However, in unpublished 16th century sources, we also find names like ‘Poma del Peru’ (which means that they also came from peru) and ‘Tumatle ex Themistithan’ which refers to the original Nahuatl name (Tumatl) and Themistithan is a misspelling of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) that was conquered in 1521 by Hernán Cortez. So the origin and the original names were known to some botanists, but they were forgotten because they did not publish their work.
Illustrations & Specimens of Tomatoes in the 16th century
The first botanists who drew tomatoes (in all kind of colors and shapes, very beautiful) lived in Germany and Switzerland in the early 1550s, but they died too soon and their work was never published. Recently, hundreds of their magnificent plant drawings have been digitized and published on the website of the library of the University of Erlangen. A pretty bad tomato illustration by the Flemish Rembert Dodoens was the first published image in 1553.
Illustrations are not the only way we know about 16th century tomatoes, but Tinde’s work specifically utilized DNA from surviving samples of 16th century tomatoes that had been preserved inside books.
These tomato specimens in herbaria are only 470 years old! They are very dead, however, and cannot be brought to life again. Their DNA can still be extracted, although it is very much fragmented, but still allows you to figure out where these tomatoes must have come from.
“The strawberry grows underneath the nettle And wholesome berries thrive and ripen best Neighbour’d by fruit of baser quality…”— Henry V (I.1)
Finding modern tomatoes descended from the 16th century
Tinde’s work explored the history and provenance of tomatoes in Europe, which lead to an investigation into whether or not there were any surviving tomato plants today which descended from the ones in the 16th century. While results are ultimately inconclusive, there’s strong evidence to suggest that some tomato plants specifically in Mexico are very closely related to the ones that would have been present in Shakespeare’s England.
Yes, indigenous farmers in Mexico and Peru were growing tomatoes similar to the 16th century En Tibi specimen. The tomatoes entered the seedbank some 30 to 50 years ago, but who knows if these farmers still grow them? Indigenous farmers in both countries are poor and marginalized and struggle to preserve their diverse crops and traditional agriculture. If we really want to know how 16th century tomatoes taste and look like, we should go to Peru and Mexico and look in small home gardens. Maybe these farmers have already given up and became migrants in the USA.
Now, what about that reference to “golden fruit” in Shakespeare’s plays? Well, Tinde points out that in her opinion, that’s probably a reference to a different kind of fruit:
“In Pericles, they mention “Before thee stands this fair Hesperides, With golden fruit, but dangerous to be touch’d”. You may think it is a tomato because it has a gold color, but a few lines earlier it is mentioned “To taste the fruit of yon celestial tree”. Since tomatoes grow on a herb, not a tree, I think they talk about another fruit here, no idea about the species, maybe a yellow plum?
However, since we know tomatoes were new, misunderstood, and associated with the apples (remember they called them golden apples), then I still want to think that maybe, just maybe, Shakespeare was referencing the tomato in Pericles. 😃
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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!
I have a couple of things to say.
First, Mexico is not in so bad a shape that a researcher could not go there and work.
Second, I hoped she would say whether or not the reputation of tomatoes as poison might have been caused by someone trying to use the plant as a vegetable. I find the smell of a tomato plant very offensive and if I touch it my hand burns and itches, but someone might have thought they would try it as a leafy vegetable.
I must also mention that people had odd ideas about tomatoes even fairly recently. In the 1950s a friend of our family had elderly relatives visit her in Los Angeles from Vermont to get away from Vermont’s harsh winter. They refused to eat the tomatoes she served as they were, “out of season and no good.” They refused to even try them. The human mind is odd.
Hello Dorothy! You’re very kind to listen to the episode and then take time to write in about it. Thank you!
I hope you didn’t get any negative impressions about Mexico from this conversation. Tinde’s work is not based in Mexico and I did not ask her about current research work into the history of 16th century tomatoes that may or may not be going on there. I’m sure if there is, she’d love to know more (as would I!)
The reputation of tomatoes as poison is something I would like to look into more as well. We weren’t able to go into that aspect of the history of tomatoes as deeply in this conversation, but maybe we can do another episode in the future that explores that further.
And yes–I know many people who will only eat fruit and vegetables when they are in season. And certainly studying the 16th century shows us that humans can come to some crazy conclusions about many things! 🙂
Thank you again for listening! I appreciate your taking the time to write in. I hope this helps!