Field of Science

You still say tomato

Tomato, tomato (said with long and short vowel sounds), a domesticated solanaceous fruit that by any other name would still taste as good, especially while thinking about the sugo alla puttanesca the Phactor cooked last night from fresh Amish paste tomatoes. For quite some time, botanists called the tomato, Lycopersicon esculentum, the juicy wolf peach, a name which added a bit of European skepticism about how esculent this neotropical, and newly arrived, nightshade might be. If you know anything about Old World nightshades, then you'll understand the skepticism. No one doubted that the tomato was closely related to the huge genus Solanum, the name sake of the nightshade family, and now relatively recent molecular studies have shown that the tomato species is part of the genus Solanum. Now what is usually done in these circumstances is that the specific epithet (esculentum) is transferred back to Solanum to produce a new combination, Solanum esculentum. Ta da! And for awhile that was the species name of tomato, but then someone remembered Linnaeus. Remember Linnaeus? The father of taxonomy. Well, the order in which taxonomic names are published counts with the first name published (the oldest) being judged correct, and no one is older than Linnaeus. Linnaeus was simply set as the starting date of plant names, and Linnaeus had named this plant Solanum lycopersicon. Subsequent to Linnaeus the specific epithet was raised to a generic level and a new specific epithet was added, but now that tomato is back in Solanum the whole thing reverts to Linnaeus' original species name. Image credit - diversely colored wild tomatoes from western S. America: Ana Caicedo, Univ. Mass.

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