Photo by Adobe Stock/mythja
Today’s tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum) — the large, smooth, red, tasty globe that many of us know and love — bears little resemblance to its South American ancestors, or even to the cultivars that appeared in the American colonies beginning in the 1600s. And until the mid-1800s, many believed that tomatoes were unhealthy or even poisonous — a notion likely originating from the similarity of tomato leaves to those of the deadly nightshade. Alexander W. Livingston recalled a memory from his childhood in 1831, when he was 10 years old, collecting some bright red “berries” along a lane. His mother promptly instructed him not to eat them, believing them to be poisonous and “only fit to be seen for their beauty.” Livingston did as he was told. However, always inquisitive, he did eventually taste them, reporting that the fruits were sour. These were early tomatoes. Later in life, this sour-fruited plant would prove to be his life’s work.
Alexander W. Livingston
Photo by Special Collections USDA National Agricultural Library
By the 1850s, many people in the United States were getting past the collective phobia of tomatoes. Eating tomatoes had even become fashionable. And as the popularity of tomatoes increased, the business of breeding better tomatoes and selling the seeds became quite profitable. Furthermore, as businesses developed various tomato products, such as canned tomatoes and ketchup, so did the need for cultivars that matched the product. Fresh market tomatoes had to be juicy and tasty, while tomatoes for processing required solid flesh and flavor that stood up to the preparations of canning and pickling.
From the time he was a young child, Livingston showed a keen interest in plants and seeds, and, when he was 21, he began working for a local seedsman. A few years later, he married and started a family. He leased a piece of land and began farming it, eventually saving up enough money to purchase a piece of land of his own in order to produce seed for the prospering seed industry.
Livingston's home in Reynoldsburg, Virginia
Photo by Wikimedia Commons/Sixflashphoto
Convinced he could develop better commercial cultivars by selecting seed from the best specimens in his fields, Livingston then went into the seed business for himself. However, even after as many as 15 years, he saw little improvement, and tomatoes were still largely undesirable, thin-skinned, lumpy fruits. Livingston was an observer, though. He noticed the oddities — the plants with fruits quite different from the parental stock — and decided to focus on breeding just those. That novel approach paid off and gave rise to numerous tomato cultivars, the first being ‘Paragon’ in 1870, which was early ripening, red, and as smooth as an apple. Other cultivars soon followed, and the list of tomatoes that Livingston developed and marketed grew to include ‘Golden Queen,’ ‘Golden Ball,’ ‘Stone,’ ‘Favorite,’ ‘Beauty,’ ‘Buckeye State,’ and ‘Perfection,’ along with many others. Each cultivar exhibited improved traits, such as better flavor, larger size, improved flesh for canning, or a better ability to grow in clay soil. Through his efforts, Alexander W. Livingston earned the title “father of the modern tomato,” and some of his cultivars are still available today from Victory Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange, TomatoFest, and other seed companies.
Dealing with Hornworms
As people grew more tomatoes in North America, insects that could handle the plant’s natural defenses thrived. Some of these pests, such as the tomato hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata) and tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta), spread at an alarming rate. Manduca means “glutton” in Latin, affirming the hornworms’ reputations as voracious eaters. They can easily decimate a tomato plant.
Photo by Adobe Stock/Ivan Kuzmin
Hornworms are native to North America. Prior to American colonization by Europeans, the hornworm populations would’ve been small and localized where Native Americans cultivated patches of tobacco, or in open areas where wild relatives of the tomato, such as ground cherry, nightshade, horse nettle, jimson weed, and other members of the Solanaceae plant family, grew.
After the European colonization of North America, tobacco became a good cash crop for farmers. In the 1700s and 1800s, fields of tobacco were widespread from Massachusetts across to Ohio and south from there. By the late 1700s, hornworms were devastating tobacco in some areas. An established food source in tobacco combined with the increasing cultivation of tomatoes in gardens made hornworm outbreaks in ensuing tomato crops inevitable and a real threat as early as the 1830s. By the 1890s, the hornworm was recognized as the most formidable enemy that ever attacked the tomato.
Photo by Adobe Stock/pimmimemom
With years of experience growing tomatoes, Livingston became an expert on handling pests attacking the plants. He offered this advice for dealing with hornworms, and the hawkmoths they grew to become: “The first thing to do is to raise a good-sized bed of petunias near the tomato field, so as to have them in full bloom by the time the tomato plants are growing nicely in the field. If you are about these petunia beds in the early evening, you will soon discover a large miller [moth] — almost as large as a hummingbird — attracted to the sweet-scented flowers.” No doubt, the odor of the petunias’ flowers (another relative of tomato) attracted the moths. Livingston continues with his instruction, “If you watch him [the moth] closely as he hovers over a flower, you will see him unroll a long proboscis, 2 to 3 inches long. ... Now while he eats thus is your opportunity, having a short, broad paddle in hand slap one on the other with said miller between them ... for this dusty and lusty insect is the moth that lays the eggs, which will hatch out in due time into the tomato-worm.” Livingston goes on to describe how he employs “spry” boys and girls for this task.
Getting Tomatoes to Market
Being in the business of selling seeds, Livingston had more sage advice for his customers. Because tomatoes originate from the western Andean coast of South America — an arid semitropical region — he shared when best to plant tomatoes in a temperate area. Knowing cold rain and frost would harm or kill the seedlings, Livingston explained, “A good way to tell when it is safe to risk transplanting in the field is to watch the buds of the oak trees, and when the leaves are like a squirrel’s foot, the time has come” to set out the early producing cultivars. That is, it’s best to plant tomatoes when the new spring oak leaves are at least 2 inches in length. In this way, the planting time was matched to that year’s weather, rather than the USDA Hardiness Zones that many growers use today.
Livingston's 'Paragon' cultiver
Courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange
Livingston also described in considerable detail how to harvest, sort, ship, and profit from tomatoes. Before the days of the mechanical harvester and tough-skinned cultivars developed specifically for machine-picking, tomatoes had to be harvested by hand, and it was no easy task. Livingston defined careful tomato picking with instructions “to place them — not throw or drop them, even for an inch — into the baskets.” Then there was the question of how to get these delicate fruits to market. Most growers learned such things by trial and error, and the marketplace showed that. From the Southern Fruit and Vegetable Shippers’ Guide and Manual, P. M. Kiely reported, “A good many [tomatoes] come from the South by freight that are almost worthless on arrival. Last year considerable came entirely too green; that is, were picked and shipped before full grown, and most of such stock arrived rotten.” Livingston advised sorting tomatoes into seven grades: “ripes,” “mediums,” and “greens,” and each of these again into two sizes: large and small. Culls made up the lowest grade, which weren’t acceptable for shipping, for those would give the farmer a bad name in the market. Livingston warned to be careful not to mix the colors in the sorting; red ripe tomatoes were to arrive at market within hours; green tomatoes within 10 days; and, in either case, “hurried away to the [rail] cars to fly by day and by night away to the Northern markets.” The best growers heeded Livingston’s advice.
And so it was during the second half of the 19th century that Livingston unraveled the mystery of developing high-quality tomato cultivars and addressed the uncertainties of getting delicate produce to market, thus paving the way for the modern tomato to become the No. 1 vegetable-fruit produced worldwide.
As he worked on developing tomato cultivars and his seed company, Livingston also published a semi-autobiographical work titled Livingston and the Tomato. In it, he talks about the tomato cultivars he developed, his methods, instructions on how to grow tomatoes, and the history of the up-and-coming fruit. His work also includes dozens of tomato recipes. The book features beautiful illustrations (such as the one above) of gardening tools and many of Livingston’s tomato creations.
Photo by Special Collections USDA National Agricultural Library
Nancy Stamp is professor of biology at Binghamton University. Her research focuses on plant-insect interactions using tomatoes and their insect pests as a research system. Her writings include more than 20 peer-reviewed articles about that research on tomatoes, plus magazine articles on the history, cultivation, and growing popularity of tomatoes.