Witches, Werewolves, and Tomatoes

How language, history, and gardens intersect.

Linguistic purists—of which practically every language has at least a few—are people who want to restore language to its original roots, with no messy input from foreign tongues or made-up modern babble like bling, geek, and google.

The linguistically pure version of English is called Anglish or Roots English, defined as English before it got stuffed full of all those suspect interlopers from Latin, Greek, Norman French, and dozens of others. To the dedicated Anglish speaker, a computer is a reckoner, a telephone is a farspeaker, and the Anglish Gettysburg Speech (not Address; that’s Old French via Latin) sounds downright peculiar, given its scorn for such words as continent, nation, liberty, and equal.

I am not a linguistic purist. Personally I’m fond of English as the sticky crazy-quilt that it is, a versatile gemisch (German/Yiddish) of everything from Inuktitut to Chinese. We’re still kicking around over a hundred words that come straight to us from the Vikings (skull, troll, slaughter) and well over a dozen from the Aztecs—including such can’t-live-without essentials as chocolate, chili, avocado, and tomato. I mean, what would we do without tomato?

Tomato in Anglish—for those of you who aren’t up on your Anglo-Saxon, there’s a helpful online translator—is love apple. Which brings us to the tomato’s rocky introduction to Europe, when we might have been better off if we’d just stuck to calling it tomato.

If the tomato didn’t launch your broomstick, it just might turn you into a werewolf.

Nobody is quite sure when and by whom the tomato was introduced to Europe, though most researchers guess that Spanish conquistadors brought seeds from Mexico in the early sixteenth century. Italian herbalist Pietro Andrea Mattioli promptly identified tomatoes as members of the Solanaceae family, which made it a worrisomely close relative of such bad actors as deadly nightshade, henbane, and mandrake. Deadly nightshade is deadly due to its hefty component of toxic alkaloids, variously responsible for doing in at least two Roman emperors and—according to one story—enabling Scotland’s King Duncan, by serving it up in punch, to eliminate an entire army of invading Danes. Henbane and mandrake are both poisonous and hallucinogenic, and mandrake is said to scream when dug up, a shriek so awful that it kills all who hear it. (One particularly heartless author recommended that mandrake digging be left to the family dog.) Collectively these fearsome plants were enough to cause the Old World to view the new-broom tomato with suspicion.

The tomato, some researchers suggest, may also have been a victim of lousy timing. Europe, from the 14th to the 17th century, was in the throes of the witchcraft craze, a bleak period during which half a million people—mostly women—were executed for trafficking with Satan. Published recipes of the time—at least one by no less than the pope’s physician—claimed that mixes of nightshade, henbane, and mandrake were ingested at witch’s Sabbaths or smeared upon broomsticks to make them fly. Given that, it’s likely that no sensible 16th-century woman wanted to be caught growing anything questionable—such as a nightshade-ish New World tomato—in the family garden.

If the tomato didn’t launch your broomstick, it just might turn you into a werewolf. The nickname wolf peach, some hypothesize, reflects the belief that tomato was a component of an ointment that could turn the susceptible furry and fanged and set them howling at the full moon. Alternatively the name just meant that the luscious-looking fruit was deceptively dangerous: peach from its yummy appearance; wolf from its murderous potential. Or the whole thing may have been a mix-up with another plant altogether, described by the Roman physician Galen in the 2nd century CE. One of these explanations seems to have impressed Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus: the modern scientific name for the tomato is Solanum lycopersicon; the species name is the Latinate version of wolf peach.

If the tomato didn’t turn you into a werewolf or kill you outright, it just might act as an aphrodisiac—hence the nickname love apple—though some researchers hypothesize that this was simply a linguistic goof: an Italian term for tomato, pomo de mori or Moor’s apple, was mistranslated by the French as pomme d’amour or love apple, when actually it was no such thing.

The belief that the tomato was poisonous—which trailed it well into the 1800s—may, according to some, have been the fault of pewter plates. Tomatoes are acidic—most have a pH in the range of 4.3 to 4.9, an acidity somewhere between that of grapefruit juice and black coffee—and as such they might have leached the lead out of pewter, eventually afflicting unwary diners with lead poisoning.

It seems far more likely, however, that the tomato’s undeserved awful reputation came from an irresponsible press. For example, John Gerard’s influential (and largely plagiarized) Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes, a 1,484-page tome published in 1597, described the tomato as “of ranke and stinking savour” and condemned it as corrupt; and Italian physician Giovanni Sala, writing in 1628, castigated it as “strange and horrible.” Once in print, these were hard stories to shake, and the tomato’s dicey history followed it to colonial America, where many continued to spurn it.

But not all. The Spanish and Italians adopted the tomato long before northern Europeans; and people in the American South seem to have grown and eaten it before gardeners in the Northeast. Thomas Jefferson—innovative in the way of vegetables—grew tomatoes at Monticello as early as 1781. Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery (1796)—generally believed to be the first all-American cookbook—makes no mention of tomatoes; though by 1824, Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife includes recipes for stewed tomatoes, scalloped tomatoes, tomato catsup, and tomato marmalade. By mid-century, even the British had succumbed to the lure of tomatoes: Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery (1845) is practically awash with tomatoes (though not with spaghetti, which Eliza recommends be served with cheese). Today, if you grow just one thing in your garden, it’s almost certain to be tomatoes.

So what was all the fuss about? Are tomatoes poisonous?

Well, actually they are, sort of. Tomato plants do contain a mildly toxic alkaloid called tomatine, concentrated in the leaves, stems, and roots. The scientific consensus is that this can make you sick—at least if you chow down on a pound or more of raw tomato foliage. But why would you, when the alternative is—hey—ripe tomatoes?

Love apple, as a synonym for tomato, hasn’t made it into common parlance, which I think is just as well. As root words go, tomato—from the original Aztec/Nahuatl tomatl—seems the better pick. I’ve got my doubts about Anglish anyway. Surely we should always make room for change and newcomers. When it comes to language—as in so many other things—it seems to me better to build a bigger table than a higher fence.

Also there’s no word for garden in Anglish.

Garden comes to us from Latin and Old French, with perhaps a touch of proto-Germanic. A mongrel word like that simply doesn’t make the linguistic purity cut. Garden, in Anglish, translates as grove, which presumably is where Anglish speakers grow their love apples.

But it’s not where I grow my tomatoes.

This article was published originally in 2023, in GreenPrints Issue #136.

  • Marcia B.

    Very interesting story, Becky. I have read a lot of back issues and don’t recall reading one of our stories before. I hope we can see more of them.


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