Why tomatoes are red, and other thoughts



Gardeners remember the classic gangster movie, The Godfather, not for its gratuitous violence but for the idealized death scene of the patriarch Don Vito Corleone (played by Marlon Brando). Don Vito was in the garden, playing pretend orange-peel monster with his grandson Anthony, when he suffers a heart attack and falls among his tomato plants.

What could be a nicer death than to be with a loved little one at the end and to drop down while playing in a nice garden? I personally would prefer such an end compared with being tied down to a hospital bed with various tubes running through my body. No, it’s not a morbid thought but a conscious choice to live a life fully, until the very end.

My own tomato plants have just ended their first season of fruiting, and the dead plants have to be removed and placed in the compost pit for regeneration into organic fertilizer. Perhaps this activity brought about the thoughts of Don Corleone’s exit as I prepared the soil for a new batch of tomato plants. But I have to make certain adjustments since the monsoon rains are now just ahead.

All my tomatoes will now have to be grown in the greenhouse during the rainy season. Based on my experience living in a highly elevated area, the rains are relentless and the tomato plants simply cannot survive that much water running through their system. The soil can’t drain fast enough, and there’s not enough sun to dry everything out.

A bountiful tomato harvest

A bountiful tomato harvest

Rains can go on for days that locals refer to them in the Tagalog term duly emphasized, for nine: “siyam-siyam.”

In my previous planting season, I went for a heady mix of cherry, natives, and salad tomatoes. The first two were quite a lark to grow; I had more tomatoes than I needed. But what I was really after were those big, gorgeous salad tomatoes. I harvested a few but it wasn’t a bumper crop unlike the cherries and natives. My efforts in this new planting season will now be focused on the “Beefsteak” tomato variety.

Lacking a mentor or formal seminars, this is the way that I have done my gardening: through practice, observation, reading gardening manuals and books, note taking, and experimentation. This is why I scoff at the idea of a “green thumb” which presupposes that one was born with the capacity or skill to undertake gardening.

I’m proof that you can go from killing plants to growing them by acquiring the knowledge of gardening through hard work and research.

To put it simply, you just need to get down there and get your hands dirty.

My favorite vegetables to plant are tomatoes. They’re red, beautiful and delicious. You feel good every time you see them in all their rounded blushing glory. They’re quite easy to grow, too, except for those picky “Beefsteak” tomatoes, which is what the largest varieties are called.

Sow your seeds in trays in a growing medium before transferring them to the garden or in containers.

When they’re about a foot or two tall, start placing stakes or tripods near the main branch. This support will help your tomato plants to grow upwards instead of just letting them sprawl all over. Some people put wire cages around them, which forestalls the need for regularly tying up the branches.

When the plants have grown I cut the lower leaves so that I can have a clear area for watering the roots. Water only the ends, with a restrained constancy. Don’t water the leaves if you want to avoid fungal disease.

Another critical factor for tomato plants is to pluck out the “suckers” or the side shoots that can become another stem if not removed.

Remember to fertilize your soil at the beginning, just before you plant your seedlings, and about mid-way of the season, just as they start to bear fruit.

Now onto two questions with interesting answers: Why are tomatoes red? And is the tomato a vegetable or a fruit?

According to a Time magazine article, “the same flying space rock that likely wiped out the dinosaurs also gave tomatoes their appealing red color.”

It quoted scientific research that showed that after this global-changing event, the ancestor of the tomato plant adjusted to the harsher environment by tripling the size of its genome, with “at least one set of genes that turned its fruit a bright red.”

Scientists made this discovery (also reported in Phys.org and Nature journal) by sequencing the plant’s genome and then making comparisons with the other members of the Solanaceae family (nightshades). Other familiar members of the nightshade family are potatoes, eggplants, bell peppers, and the Wicca favorite, belladonna.

Solanaceae have naturally occurring alkaloids that are toxic or mind-altering, but tomato eventually dropped its genome containing the poisons such that it is now safe to eat even in its raw form. Its relative the potato, however, can still produce fruits that look a lot like tomatoes but are deadly if consumed (the tubers are fine, as long as you cook them).

My favorite dinner table pop quiz is this—is the tomato a vegetable or a fruit?

Botanically speaking, a tomato is a fruit since it developed from a pollinated and mature ovary from inside its flower. It contains within its fleshy covering the seeds that the plant, by its nature, wishes to disseminate.

However, legally speaking, the tomato is a vegetable.

The US Supreme Court ruled in 1893 that tomato is a vegetable following a tariff dispute. An importer of tomato didn’t want to pay the import tax so he argued that his product was a fruit. But the court ruled that the tomato’s culinary use as a vegetable served with dinner—and not as a fruit for dessert—made it a vegetable.

Whatever label they may have, tomatoes are one of the finest gifts of nature to man. We are lucky indeed to find it in its final evolved state as a nutritious, luscious fruit functioning as a vegetable.



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