Random Facts About … Gardening and Why Tomatoes Were Toxic to the Wealthy

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By David Martin – 

When we opened our internet tubes this week, green growing gardens were revealed. In some parts of the world, a “garden” is assumed to mean areas for flowers and frillies while a plot for growing food is referred to as a kitchen garden, vegetable garden, potager (France), or kailyaird (Scotland). Hereabouts, when someone refers to his or her garden, we assume they mean they’re growing stuff to eat. Or, in the case of zucchinis, stuff for their neighbors to eat. 

When humans stopped roaming, hunting, gathering to try to live in one place, some 23,000 years ago, they began planting seeds. When people noticed that an individual plant produced more, bigger, and/or better tasting fruits and vegetables or the plant survived the latest weather disaster, seeds from that particular plant were kept to grow next year. We became gardeners. 

Ancient Greeks grew cabbage, onions, asparagus, barley, figs, olives, and apples. Later, Romans made a science of perfecting their vegetable gardens, which were often irrigated and surrounded with stone walls. In none of these gardens would you find squash, corn, tomatoes, avocados, peppers, or potatoes. All of those, now standard in gardens across the globe, originated in the Americas and traveled to the rest of the world after the European exploration of North and South America. 

Indigenous peoples of the Americas interplanted what became known as the Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash. The Iroquois, for example, had been growing the Three Sisters crops for hundreds of years before Europeans arrived. Each of the sisters contributes to the success of their siblings. Corn stalks provide vertical growing stakes for the beans to climb and those bean vines help prevent corn stalks from blowing over in the wind. As a legume, beans fix nitrogen in the soil and corn craves nitrogen. With its large leaves growing along the ground, squash shades the soil and helps retain moisture during the dry summer months. The spiky squash vines can also discourage pests like raccoons. The Three Sisters also contributed to a balanced diet with protein (beans), carbohydrates (corn), and the vitamins and minerals in squash. 

In gardens today, tomatoes are the most popular vegetable to grow. Thousands of years ago, Aztecs and others were cultivating tomatoes from wild versions that were the size of blueberries. When the tomato was introduced to the Western world in the 1500s, it had two strikes against it. First, writers at the time classified the tomato as poisonous. Second, it WAS poisonous to many wealthy people. 

The European rich used pewter plates with high lead content. Acidic foods, like tomatoes, can leach out the lead and increase the possibility of potentially fatal lead poisoning. Tomatoes became popular among poor people, especially those in Southern Europe, because these poor folks ate off wooden plates and were, therefore, unaffected by the acidic nature of tomatoes.

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