Father of the Modern Tomato

Follow Alexander W. Livingston’s quest to transform a sour, lumpy ornamental into one of the world’s most beloved garden fruits.

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.

Livingston’s Oddities

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

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