The wild tomatoes of Peru
By: Oliver Whaley - 02/07/2013
Tomatoes are among the Vegetable Medley which is currently transforming Kew's Palm House parterre into a stunning display of edible plants. You might imagine tomatoes originated on the sunny slopes of the Mediterranean - but you'd be wrong: for the birthplace of the noble tom is the remote desert oases of Peru.
The deserts of Peru
Peru’s arid Pacific coast is part of one of the oldest, driest and longest deserts in the world, the Peru-Chile desert which includes Sechura desert in North Peru and the Atacama in the south, and extending into Chile. And it is here under the simmering sun, and at times bathed in coastal fog, that the quebradas (deep valleys that emerge from the Andes) and river oases provide the true home to the wild relatives of the tomato.
Dry coastal valley of Ica, Peru, typical habitat of wild tomatoes (Photo: Oliver Whaley, RBG Kew)
Cochas crying with happiness
Quechua Inca legend has it that, cradled high in the Andes, the cochas (small lakes) were the children of the mother water, Mamacocha, or the sea. When the cochas overflowed after rain, they ran crying with happiness, cascading into the dry valleys on their journey home to Mamacocha − thus bringing life to the desert. And along these rivers and irrigated borders the tiny berries of wild tomatoes, the size of peas, proliferate every year the water flows.
Solanum pimpinellifolium, so called because of its Pimpinella-like leaves with their variable size and shape, is a wild tomato native to Peru.(Photo: Oliver Whaley, RBG Kew)
The Solanum genus
As well as tomatoes, the Solanum genus includes other important foods such as the Potato (Solaunum tuberosum) and the Aubergine (Solanum melongena), and you can also find these in the IncrEdibles Vegetable Medley.
The tomato we eat today is called Solanum lycopersicum (previously called Lycopersicon esculentum) and, like most of today’s crops, is a hybrid of various wild species. If you tease out the genetic code you can reveal the whole ancestral history of Mr Tom and it turns out that pieces of the DNA of the tomato on your plate reveal genetic fingerprints of the wild berries from the dry Andean valleys.
Today, this is an easy forensic technique that could even be done on your tomato ketchup and we now know that our supermarket tomato is related to, and derived from, at least in part, a bunch of southern Peruvian coastal ‘great grandparent’ species (some of which also grow in dry northern Chile and southern Ecuador and Bolivia). Beside S.pimpinellifolium these include: S. chilense, S. pennellii and S. peruvianum.
What's in a name?
The word “tomato” is derived from tomātl, a word in Náhuatl, one of the native Mexican languages, which describes plants bearing globose, juicy fruits. Tomato-like plants also thrive in Mexico and this is perhaps where the Spanish conquistadores assimilated the word, before bringing it to the wider world.
Kew's work in Peru
Kew has been working in Peru for many years. The Huarango Project began in 2005 and is helping the local community in Ica to establish a tree nursery and planting programme. One of the beauties of living and working in the region is stumbling across one of the species listed above, with blinding yellow, as well as pale mauve and white, flowers quivering in the sunny valley bottoms, rejuvenated after a single flash flood.
Young flowers of Solanum peruvianum (Photo: Oliver Whaley, RBG Kew)
The Huarango Festival
The highlight of the year is the annual Huarango Festival which is every bit as colourful as a South American festival should be. The festival provides a cultural celebration of local native plants including wild tomatoes - so encouraging their use and conservation. Kew is helping this by collaborating with the Huarango Festival and Samaca Products, an organically registered farm in the Oasis valley of Rio Ica, Southern Peru, to produce a range of products including these delicious sun-dried wild tomatoes. At the moment they're only available in Peru - but it would be great if we could import them and sell them in the Kew shop. Watch this space!
Sun-dried tomatoes produced by Samaca Products in Peru (Photo: Alfonso Orellana)
So when the British summer fails to ripen your tomato and the one on your salad looks rather peaky and forlorn, think of its desert home and imagine the Peruvian ‘children of water‘ bringing red glowing happiness and flavour to your plate!
- Oliver Whaley -
Palm House Parterre: Vegetable Medley
The Palm House Parterre is being transformed into an edible display including tomatoes, aubergine, chillies, celeriac, celery, kohl rabi, aubergines, leeks, sweetcorn, bell pepper, beetroot and florence fennel as well as runner beans, kale and chard. Visitors who feel inspired will be able to pick up top growing tips from Kew’s horticulturalists.
- When - Sat 22 July to Sun 1 September 2013
- Where is the Palm House Parterre? - to the side of the Palm House - Plan your visit with the IncrEdibles Voyage map (pdf)
- Find out more about Kew's work in Peru
- View posters of the Huarango Festival at the bottom of this page
- Find out about the Atacama-Sechura Deserts on the WWF website
- Article describing research into the genetic origins of the tomato
Week by week horticulturalists, botanists and attractions organisers from all around Kew Gardens wrote for this special IncrEdibles blog, describing behind-the-scenes experiences and sharing insights into the amazing world of edible plants.
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