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What Green Tomatoes Taught Me About People

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Every year, my family grows cherry tomatoes, to enjoy them as snacks and in salads all season long. You might think that here in Phoenix, tomatoes would thrive all year; it rarely freezes, and is famously warm for the majority of the growing season. But every year, in the heat of summer, though we have a ton of fruit on the vine, it's all a pale green. Yet in the fall, our tomatoes boom again, giving us a crop of tomatoes that we couldn't possibly eat before they rot.

This year, I decided to investigate the cause of our lack of tomatoes in summer.Sometimes, the birds would eat them, but we'd always grown them in a caged garden. The problem really was that there were many green tomatoes, but none that seemed to ripen. We fertilized and had very healthy plants, but none that bore anything but green fruit in summer.

I'd always been told that tomatoes are a summer fruit, but it turns out I was mistaken. As it turns out, in Phoenix, the summers are actually far too hot for even this sun-loving plant, and because of the excessive warmth, they stop producing a vital chemical that makes tomatoes turn red: lycopene. Lycopene is actually important to your diet, and tomatoes are a great source of it, but after about 75-85°F, the plants stop making it, in favor of water conservation through the dry heat of summer. Even desert-bred varieties of tomatoes struggle to produce in the Arizona heat!

Really, green tomatoes are a lot like people. Sometimes, they try so hard to ripen against the odds, and are eaten by a bird immediately after turning slightly red. So do we often try to thrive when it's not our time to do so. Sometimes it's too hot for tomatoes to turn red, and sometimes the conditions aren't right for our big break. Sometimes, tomatoes need extra help to ripen where they're planted, and people need help to reach their potential. 

Some tomatoes aren't so lucky, and never do change color. The good news is that green tomatoes have a number of uses, as green and plain as they seem. Fried green tomatoes are delicious, and so is green tomato salsa. Even raw green tomatoes can be a good snack! Some tomatoes can even be ripened indoors after being harvested, in a brown paper bag. And most importantly, there are many species of tomatoes that are supposed to remain green, even once they're ripened!

So if you're still a green tomato, don't fret. Your time may be coming, and I hope you get the resources you need to help you ripen. And who knows? You might be ripe already, even though you appear green.

Photo: Cherry tomatoes in Phoenix, AZ. Original, Melissa Selleys 2019