The tomato: fruit or vegetetable?

When I want to get a room full of gardeners engaged in a lively debate, I bring up the topic of tomatoes.

A question that transforms shy, reserved types into outspoken, opinionated verbal wranglers is this one: “Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable?”

Botanically speaking, a tomato is a fruit. In The American Heritage Dictionary, fruit is defined as a “ripened, seed-bearing part of a plant, esp. when fleshy and edible.”

From a legal standpoint, the tomato is a vegetable. More than 100 years ago this question was litigated in the courts, according to Michael S. Heard in his paper titled “The Tomato: Fruit or Vegetable? A Nonhorticulturist’s Perspective” (July/September 1996 issue of HortTechnology).closeup_tomato_BPlow res

On Feb. 4, 1887, an importer named Nix brought a case against one Mr. Hedden, a collector of the port of New York. Nix, the plaintiff, wanted to recover the duties he paid on tomatoes that he imported from the West Indies the previous year.

Nix argued that tomatoes were fruit, thus exempt from a tariff. Hedden, the defendant, considered tomatoes vegetables and followed the regulations of the 1883 Tariff Act, which imposed a duty on vegetables, but not fruits.

The court had to decide if the tomato was a fruit or vegetable according to the 1883 Tariff Act.

Both parties used dictionaries to prove their cases. Nix’s counsel read the dictionary definitions of fruit and vegetable. He followed with a definition of tomato, proving that it was a fruit.

Hedden’s counsel countered with dictionary definitions of pea, eggplant, cucumber, squash and pepper.

Nix closed with dictionary definitions of potato, turnip, parsnip, cauliflower, cabbage, carrot and bean.

The court ruled in favor of Hedden by declaring the tomato a vegetable. Nix appealed.

In 1893, the higher court defined the case of Nix v. Hedden as a “single question: whether tomatoes are to be classed as ‘vegetables’ or as ‘fruits,’ within the meaning of the Tariff Act of 1883.”

Justice Gray delivered the court’s opinion: “Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas.

“But in the common language of the people, all these are vegetables, which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with or after the soup, fish or meats which, constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.”

The higher court agreed that dictionaries call the tomato a fruit; however, the dictionary definitions were not admitted as evidence because “in the common language of the people (tomatoes) are vegetables.”

The ruling of the court: “Tomatoes are vegetables and not fruit within the meaning of the 1883 Tariff Act.”

When I was recently cornered by a group of truth-seeking gardeners during a lunch break at a symposium, I was asked if the tomato is a fruit or vegetable.

I calmly replied, “Yes,” and quickly ducked out in the direction of the sliced tomatoes, salsa and gazpacho.


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