The sweet (?) scent of ripe tomatoes … and other plants


Photo by Cynthia Hochswender

What do tomatoes have in common with cannabis? They both have strong scents that are apparently caused by something in their genetic makeup called terpenes. 

This can lead to amusing internet searches. If you do a query on tomatoes and their scent you will find that there is a lot of overlap with marijuana websites. One of them gave an extensive and polite explanation of how hard it is to mask the smell of tomatoes growing in your yard. I couldn’t figure out why tomatoes were supposed to be a big secret until I realized they were using the tomatoes as a sort of code for their “medicinal,” and not fully legal, plants.

If you have actual tomato plants in your garden right about now, you’ve probably noticed that tomato plants have a very strong (and in my opinion lovely) scent. I don’t know how to describe it other than that it’s kind of sharp and green. 

The fruits themselves have their own distinctive odor, which you don’t really notice unless you have a lot of tomatoes ripening in your garden, kitchen or back porch (or all three, as I do).

I once did a project with a small farm in Amenia and was surprised in August by how much the young farm workers hated the tomatoes. It was the juices, they said, which made their hands smell. The juice also irritated their skin, but I couldn’t find any explanations for this on the web other than that tomatoes, as we know, are acidic.

So it’s the terpenes that cause the scent. And if you were growing a semi-legal medicinal plant in your backyard, apparently you could even tell what the medicinal effects of the finished product would be, based on the smell. 

The terpenes are not just there for aromatherapy. According to *ahem* www.cannabisinfo.com, they also have “antimicrobial, antiseptic, analgesic, antioxidant, anti-carcinogen, anti-depressant, anti-inflammatory and muscle-relaxing properties.”

Apparently a lot of plants have terpenes, and the most fragrant of them have the highest concentration of terpenes. Another plant that has a lot of them: hops and which are used to make beer, and which are apparently native to New England and which are now being grown in quantity at Smokedown Farm in Sharon (and they do smell very lovely).

Another website (www.bcnorthernlights.com) says that tomatoes have more than 200 different kinds of terpenes (including a variety called lycopene), which makes them tasty, vividly colored and healthful.

Weirdly, and curiously, terpenes are also heavy and account for about 1 percent of a tomato’s weight.

No doubt this fascinating explanation of the scent of a tomato has made you eager to go buy or pick some tomatoes. I’ve had a particularly bumper crop this year, so if you live near me you should keep your car doors locked so I don’t “share” some of them with you. I guess I could also bring them to the Salisbury-Sharon transfer station; someone left a very large cucumber and a very large zucchini in the swap shop last weekend.

Tomatoes are of course delicious in salads. I made one on Sunday that had diced tomatoes, mayonnaise, bacon, chives, lemon juice and salt and pepper. Not especially healthy, but very delicious. 

Cheddar cheese for some reason goes especially well with tomatoes. Chef Brad Cohen said on the internet that this is probably because the acid in the fruit breaks down the fats in cheese nicely, and cheddar is an especially fatty cheese. This theory also explains why tomatoes work so well with bacon and avocadoes and mozzarella.

At a certain point, though, you just can’t keep up with all the tomatoes, even if you eat them for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack.

I usually roast most of mine. This year I grew a variety called Juliet, similar to a plum. It’s as sweet as a cherry tomato but with more interior flesh and less juice, making it perfect for roasting (and sandwiches). 

I don’t can my tomatoes; I roast and then freeze them, which is much easier and in my opinion much tastier. If I have the energy, I cut off the top (where the fruit was connected to the vine). 

If they are large tomatoes, I cut them into quarters, and take off any of those dark, hard lines on the skin. I pile them up in a glass rectangular baking dish, and roast them at 375 until the tops turn kind of black. 

Usually I then turn off the oven and leave the tomatoes in there so they get nice and soft.

After they’ve cooled, I put them in plastic containers in small amounts (just enough tomatoes for one spaghetti dinner for myself and my daughter). 

I used to add sugar and herbs for the roasting; now I just drizzle on some olive oil and add the other flavor amendments after I defrost and before I make the finished sauce (maple syrup, I have learned recently, is excellent with roasted tomatoes).