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The tomato (Solanum lycopersicum, syn. Lycopersicon lycopersicum & Lycopersicon esculentum) is a herbaceous, usually sprawling plant in the Solanaceae or nightshade family that is typically cultivated for the purpose of harvesting its fruit for human consumption. Savory in flavor (and accordingly termed a vegetable; see section Fruit or vegetable below), the fruit of most varieties ripens to a distinctive red color. Tomato plants typically reach to 1–3 metres (3–10 ft) in height, and have a weak, woody stem that often vines over other plants. The leaves are 10–25 centimetres (4–10 in) long, odd pinnate, with 5–9 leaflets on petioles, each leaflet up to 8 centimetres (3 in) long, with a serrated margin; both the stem and leaves are densely glandular-hairy. The flowers are 1–2 centimetres (0.4–0.8 in) across, yellow, with five pointed lobes on the corolla; they are borne in a cyme of 3–12 together. It is a perennial, often grown outdoors in temperate climates as an annual.
The tomato is native to South America. Genetic evidence shows that the progenitors of tomatoes were herbaceous green plants with small green fruit with a center of diversity in the highlands of Peru. These early Solanums diversified into the dozen or so species of tomato recognized today. One species, Solanum lycopersicum, was transported to Mexico where it was grown and consumed by prehistoric humans. The exact date of domestication is not known. Evidence supports the theory that the first domesticated tomato was a little yellow fruit, ancestor of L. cerasiforme, grown by the Aztecs of Central Mexico who called it xitomatl, meaning plump thing with a navel, and later called tomatl by other Mesoamerican peoples. Aztec writings mention tomatoes were prepared with peppers, corn and salt, likely to be the original salsa recipe.
Many historians believe that the Spanish explorer Cortez may have been the first to transfer the small yellow tomato to Europe after he captured the Aztec city of Tenochtítlan, now Mexico City in 1521 (492 years ago). Yet others believe Christopher Columbus, an Italian working for the Spanish monarchy, was the first European to take back the tomato, earlier in 1493 (520 years ago). The earliest discussion of the tomato in European literature appeared in a herbal written in 1544 (469 years ago) by Pietro Andrea Mattioli, an Italian physician and botanist, who named it pomo d’oro, golden apple.
The word tomato comes from a word in the Nahuatl language, tomatl. The specific name, lycopersicum, means "wolf-peach".
Aztecs and other peoples in the region used the fruit in their cooking; it was being cultivated in southern Mexico and probably other areas by 500BC. It is thought that the Pueblo people believed that those who witnessed the ingestion of tomato seeds were blessed with powers of divination. The large, lumpy tomato, a mutation from a smoother, smaller vegetable , originated and was encouraged in Mesoamerica. Smith states this variant is the direct ancestor of some modern cultivated tomatoes.
According to Andrew F Smith's The Tomato in America, the tomato probably originated in the highlands of the west coast of South America. However, Smith notes there is no evidence the tomato was cultivated or even eaten in Peru before the Spanish arrived.
Two modern tomato cultivar groups, one represented by the Matt's Wild Cherry tomato, the other by currant tomatoes, originate by recent domestication of the wild tomato plants apparently native to eastern Mexico.
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