In August my gardener hands are stained nicotine dark from the resinous sap of tangled tomato vines heavy with summer fruit. In the spell of the nightshades I return to my first season of growing tomatoes at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, deep in the Ventana wilderness of central California. Anchored by a daily meditation schedule of dawn and nighttime zazen, the tomato plants of the Tassajara garden kept my practice grounded by day. Now, almost 35 years later, the intrepid tomato continues to provide long hours of mindfulness and the real wealth of a succulent harvest.
The Solanaceae, or nightshade family, of which the tomato is a charter member, also includes the potato, eggplant, chili pepper, sweet pepper, and tobacco, as well as 90 other genera and close to 2,000 species of related plants. The first wild tomato originated in the arid Andean region of western South America, where the fruit was cultivated for millennia by sophisticated Incan and Aztec farmers. Tomatoes grew in Montezuma’s gardens in 1519, when Cortez first collected the fruit, introducing its ripe seed to Europe. Today, tomato plants colonize the gardening world.
Solanacea may be related to the Latin solamen, which means “relief.” All members of the Solanaceae family contain a Lethean range of powerful sedative alkaloids including morphine, quinine, atropine, nicotine, and strychnine, rendering the nightshades a potent family of dangerous plants. The first European reference to the tomato dates to a 1544 Italian herbal describing the fruit as mala aurea or “golden apple.” The French in turn named the tomato pomme d’amour, or “love apple.” The juicy, dark red, and heart-shaped tomato used by 16th-century herbalists was prized as an aphrodisiac and later feared as a deadly poison, a reputation earned from the tomato’s disreputable relatives: mandrake, henbane, deadly nightshade, jimsonweed, and other species of the Datura genus.
In colonial New England, the tomato was banned by ministers and physicians. Early Pilgrims distrusted the seductive love apple, considering it evil, on a par with dancing, card playing, and theatergoing. The tomato’s contradictory characteristics, as both love potion and nightshade poison, make it all the more appealing. I cannot imagine an edible garden without the invigorating and quieting presence of this Solanaceae member.
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