tomato, plant ( Lycopersicon esculentum ) of the family Solanaceae (nightshade family), related to the potato and eggplant. Although cultivated in Mexico and Peru for centuries before the European conquest, the tomato is one of the newest plants to be used on a large scale for human food. When the Spanish explorers brought back seed from South America, the plant was grown merely for ornament; it was known as the love apple. Though the fruit was described as a salad ingredient before 1600, it was commonly regarded as poisonous, and only within the last century has it become recognized as a valuable food. Indeed, all parts of the plant but the fruit are toxic. It was reintroduced to the United States as a food plant c.1800 and now ranks third among our vegetable crops. It is very popular as a salad vegetable, yet three quarters of the crop is processed into juice, canned tomatoes, soups, catsup, and tomato pastes. It is the most widely used canned vegetable. Numerous varieties (ranging from the small cherry tomato to the large beefsteak) are cultivated in practically all parts of the United States except the warmest regions. One of the worst tomato pests is the cutworm. Tomato-seed oil (from waste seed of canning processes) is sometimes extracted, chiefly in Italy. An antibiotic, tomatine, is also extracted from the seed. Technically the tomato is a fruit, although it is commonly considered a vegetable because of its uses. The tomato is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Solanales, family Solanaceae.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.