Smells of Summer: Fresh, Fragrant Tomato Leaves

Smells of summer: fresh, fragrant tomato leaves

Coconut, Coppertone, saltwater, freshly cut grass and charcoal heating on the grill. These are some of the smells that reminded me of summer while I was growing up. And now as a gardener, tomato leaves make that happy list.

While there’s no shortage of Coppertone and saltwater on a California summer day (or any day in any season here, for that matter), the one smell that truly ushers in summer and closes it out is the heady, earthy, viney, fragrant aroma of fresh tomato leaves as you brush against them — either to stake up the vines in June or to pull up the last lingering plants in September.

Have you ever wondered where, exactly, that distinctive smell comes from? It’s not in the fruit, no matter how richly perfumed that heirloom variety may be. It’s only in the leaves, stems, and sepals (those little green “hats” on the flowers and fruits), and even on tiny seedlings that have barely seen the sun. It’s an unmistakable scent that no other plant shares, and people either love it or they hate it.

Tomato trichomes on sepals

If you examine a tomato plant up close, you may notice that the foliage is covered in short, fine, hair-like structures. These hairs (what I affectionately dub tomato fuzz) are known as trichomes, and they serve a variety of functions and exist on many other plants as well. On a tomato plant, several types of trichomes are found on the stems, leaves, and sepals.

Tomato trichomes on tomato stem

Trichomes are short, fine, hair-like structures on tomato stems

Trichomes on tomato leaf

One type works to reduce evaporation of water by trapping moisture on the surface of the leaf. Another helps shield the plant against environmental stresses like extreme temperatures, and yet another type, glandular trichomes, contains crystals and oils in the bulbous section of the structures, seen here on the ends.

Glandular trichomes on a tomato stem

(Images by University of California, Davis.)

It’s believed that these crystals and oils are part of the plant’s defense mechanisms. They produce an unpleasant feel, taste and smell meant to protect the plant from insects that might feed on its foliage.

The essential oils are responsible for giving the tomato plant its characteristic smell, as well as the sticky yellow secretion you’ve probably had all over your hands after a day of harvesting tomatoes.

(As an aside, you might remember this post I wrote about a glycoalkaloid called tomatine that’s present in tomato leaves; it’s stored in the glandular trichomes as well.)

Within the oils, the volatile compounds that contribute most to tomato leaf scent are (Z)-3-hexenal, limonene, hexanal, (E)-2-hexenal, eugenol, 1,8-cineole, caryophyllene, beta-phellandrene, humulene, and linalool. It’s a little ironic that what might be considered “unpleasant” by pests can in fact be so intoxicating to the rest of us!

Like it or not, these compounds, collectively, are exclusive to tomato trichomes. If you want to add a distinctively tomatoey flavor to your tomato sauce or tomato soup, simply steep a few sprigs of tomato leaves in the pot the same way you would steep some bay leaves. As the trichomes burst and release their oils, the herbal aroma will infuse your dish with a deeper layer of flavor that can only be described as… summer.

Tomato plant

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September 17 2015      51 comments     Linda Ly
Jardín   Verduras

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  • Way cool. And it makes yer fingers green too! I like making a tomato leaf spray to keep away bad bugs…works great!

    • Yellow, green, and sometimes even black if you really get a lot of that tomato “tar” on your hands… it all comes from the essential oils in the foliage!

  • That’s a whole lot of intricate details about the lovely plant…the sent reminds me of my grandmother and her patch of land. I will have to try the leaves in a dish…thanks for the idea!

  • McKenzie

    Maybe this is just an old wives’ tale, but I thought tomato leaves were poisonous? Is it not dangerous to add them to food? Because otherwise that sounds amazing!!

    • They used to think that tomatoes were poisonous, maybe that’s why you recall it. Tomatoes are a nightshade and tend to trigger toxins and create inflammation like other nightshades but I can’t resist a juicy off the vine tomato!

      • McKenzie

        I eat my weight in fresh tomatoes! I was just wondering about the leaves 🙂

    • Not poisonous! 🙂 I cover that myth in more detail here: http://www.gardenbetty.com/2013/08/tomato-leaves-the-toxic-myth/

      I also have a couple of recipes that use tomato leaves in my book, The CSA Cookbook: http://www.thecsacookbook.com

      • McKenzie

        Very cool! Thanks for the info.

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