What color is a tomato?
November 23, 2021 4:41 PM   Subscribe

I saw a picture of a tomato grown from 150 year-old seeds, and it was almost black. Today's color, they said, was a recent phenomenon.

Because of the mixed reaction to tomatoes when they were first introduced to Europe, I would like to know what color they (the tomatoes) were when they first arrived. Most sources say they were yellow, but there is a disturbing sameness to these statements which leads me to believe that they are all quoting, not necessarily accurately, from the same source. Moreover, knowing the huge variety of colors available in such things as corn and potatoes, I am dubious that tomatoes only came in what is today pretty much an immature color. I would like to know if the missionaries who chronicled these events ever included a picture of tomatoes being given to the European gentry, and whether the text said, "Yes, this is what a tomato looks like". Does anyone have a link?
posted by alonsoquijano to Food & Drink (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Haven't found anything specific yet, but I did find this preserved specimen from 1558 and this illustration from 1550s-ish. The caption on the illustration says it's one of the first European illustrations of the tomato, which - if accurate - is probably not encouraging for finding much that's earlier.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 5:15 PM on November 23, 2021 [5 favorites]

I saw a picture of a tomato grown from 150 year-old seeds, and it was almost black.

Indigo tomatoes are still a thing, and I’m led to believe they are largely heritage types. FWIW, my experience is that indigoes taste like ass, so the cold reception by europeans is probably legit.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:22 PM on November 23, 2021 [3 favorites]

We have literally centuries of paintings of red tomatoes, like this.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 5:27 PM on November 23, 2021 [4 favorites]

The wild ancestor of cultivated tomatoes has red fruit, so it's hard to imagine that red hasn't been a common color for tomatoes for as long as people have been growing them.
posted by Redstart at 5:29 PM on November 23, 2021 [6 favorites]

Best answer: From Kutsuwamushi's link:
These illustrations, as later ones (Dodoens, 1574; Durante, 1585; Matthioli, 1586; Zuingeri, 1696; Besler, 1613), testify to the great diversity of fruits types when tomato was introduced in Europe: whitish, yellowish, orange, and red, sometimes small and round, but more frequently large and ribbed.
posted by clew at 5:30 PM on November 23, 2021 [4 favorites]

The "indigo" tomato (blue rose) that is so popular now is a recent cultivar, BTW.

I'm not a tomato expert, but my family is the type that sits down every year to go through heirloom seed catalogs and pick out what tomatoes we'll grow each year. Most "black" heirloom tomatoes are actually a purplish or greenish or brownish red, not black.

There's a lot of tall tales in the heirloom seed world, so I'm inclined to be skeptical of anything that seems surprising. And I'm surprised that you could grow anything from 150 year old tomato seeds to start with. Trying to verify even that part of the story, I'm finding a lot of sites for garden enthusiasts repeating the same story about seeds found in an 1850s privy, but not a lot of info that would actually verify that the story is true and the seeds actually 150 years old.

(The tomatoes grown were a brownishred, not black.)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 5:41 PM on November 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

Also, all I could find about Aztec illustrations of the tomato were scholars arguing whether the plant illustrated on a certain page of the Codex Barberini was actually even a tomato. :(
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 5:42 PM on November 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

I saw a picture of a tomato grown from 150 year-old seeds, and it was almost black. Today's color, they said, was a recent phenomenon.

One hundred fifty years ago was about 1870. This seed catalog from 1870 includes 3 tomato varieties with "red" in their names and 3 with "yellow." (And quite a few others whose names don't indicate their color.) So while some tomatoes 150 years ago may have been almost black, it's not like red tomatoes were unheard of.

I realize your question is about what color tomatoes were when they were first introduced to Europe, but since it was inspired by a claim about what color tomatoes were in 1870, I thought it might be helpful to show that that claim doesn't seem to be all that accurate.
posted by Redstart at 5:44 PM on November 23, 2021 [6 favorites]

Best answer: An interesting question! This academic paper (in Spanish) covers tomatoes and tomatillos in Mexico and Europe in the 1500s. The Spaniards would have first encountered tomatoes around 1520.

One section relates what is found in the Florentine Codex regarding tomatoes. There are three kinds sold in the main market in Mexico City: regular tomatoes, serpent-coloured tomatoes (not sure what this means, possibly green striped as some modern tomatoes are), and nipple-shaped tomatoes. It says they sell tomatoes and tomatillos in various colours like red, yellow, green and pink. The Codex was produced by a Spanish monk in Mexico with local Nahuatl people, so this is probably a pretty good source for what was available in Mexico City around the time of the Spanish invasion.

It also quotes a Spanish visitor in the 1500s who noted large yellow and red tomatoes.

Bear in mind that early sources are likely to be focused on Mexico City and the surrounding area and other areas could well have had other colours of tomatoes. This paper says there is more genetic diversity of tomatoes in Veracruz and Puebla than in Mexico City.

It also relates what it calls the first reference to the cultivation of tomatoes in Spain by monk who worked in a botanical garden at the end of the 1500s writing about having two or three varieties of tomato that "take a red tone" and are good for sauces.

It looks like the yellow story comes from the name given in a 1554 herbarium from Venice: pomo d'oro (golden fruit). The herbarium author apparently writes that they start out yellow, but turn red as they mature.

From a modern perspective, there are plenty of varieties that mature yellow, so I wouldn't make any assumptions that yellow tomatoes would necessarily be immature. But, from the limited information available here, it does look like tomatoes probably turned red when mature when first introduced to Europe, though I don't think we can rule out yellow tomatoes being introduced to Europe as well in the 1500s. Someone with more time on their hands than me could probably find more sources in Spanish from Mexico or Spain or chase down the original sources cited in this paper.

In case it is of interest, Wikipedia in Spanish has a list of wild tomatoes with colours listed as red, yellow, orange, black, green, green-yellow, green with purple stripes, and green with green stripes (this includes both tomatoes and tomatillos).
posted by ssg at 10:23 PM on November 23, 2021 [13 favorites]

And regarding tomato colours in the 1870s, they were definitely red and yellow then. Here's an illustration from 1879. I very much doubt that black tomatoes were common in most of Europe in the 1870s.
posted by ssg at 10:33 PM on November 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You may find The History of the Arrival of the Tomato in Europe: An Initial Overview of interest. It discusses both red and yellow tomatoes.
posted by ssg at 11:07 PM on November 23, 2021 [3 favorites]

Here is an illustration from Bavaria in 1613 of red tomatoes. Interestingly, they look a lot like tomatoes I've seen in Mexico that people call criollo tomatoes.
posted by ssg at 11:17 PM on November 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm astonished at the amount of useful information that such an unassuming little question generated, and I'm equally humbled by the fact that others have explored this question in so much more depth than I could offer. Thank you all!
posted by alonsoquijano at 4:41 PM on November 24, 2021

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