Tomatoes originated in the Andes mountains of South America but were not cultivated until they had traveled to Central America where pre-Mayan people first domesticated them. The Aztecs were the first to cultivate and eat a wild, cherry-sized tomato, Lycopersicon esculentum, the ancestor of the modern tomato.
Cortez took samples of tomatoes back to Spain after his explorations. The earliest written record of tomatoes is in herbal books where it is correctly categorized as a member of the nightshade family, the same family that produces a number of poisonous or narcotic plants. Other notorious members of the family are the deadly nightshade, jimson weed, and tobacco.
Although tomatoes were grown in England and seed was brought to America by early settlers, they were planted strictly as ornamentals until the 1830's because they were believed to be poisonous. The tomato was called "wolf peach", a name reflected in its scientific name, Lycopersicon esculentum which literally means "edible wolf peach."
The belief changed in the 1820s when Colonel Johnson staged an event in Salem, New Jersey. He claimed he would eat a basketful of tomatoes on the steps of the local courthouse for the public to see that they were not harmful. A crowd turned out to watch the colonel die and a local physician warned that he would "foam at the mouth ... double over with appendicitis ... if the wolf peach is too ripe and warmed by the sun ... exposing himself to brain fever."
Despite the doctor's dire predictions, the whole episode didn't turn out to be much of a show as Johnson cheerfully ate the basketful and survived. After that, people began to accept tomatoes as a food and by 1835, they were readily available in supermarkets around the country.
In the 1880s James Vick's Flower and Vegetable Catalog listed six types of tomatoes. From those beginnings, breeders began to develop newer varieties of various colors, shapes and sizes with varied resistance characteristics.
In 1949, W. Atlee Burpee Co. introduced the first F1 Hybrid tomato, "Big Boy", an early variety of large, smooth red tomato. Since then, thousands of hybrid tomatoes have been introduced to gardeners. Multiple disease resistances and tolerances have been bred into tomatoes, different varieties mature at different rates and fruits containing variable solid matter for different purpose have arrived on the market.
Tomatoes are among the most popular garden plants today. For many gardeners, tomatoes are the reason to raise a garden. Other plants are mere accessories.