Garden of Eatin' / Vegetables

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 October.

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.

Fragrant oil glands on tomato seedling

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

Linda Ly About Author

I'm a plant lover, passionate road-tripper, and cookbook author whose expert advice and bestselling books have been featured in TIME, Outside, HGTV, and Food & Wine. The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is my latest book. Garden Betty is where I write about modern homesteading, farm-to-table cooking, and outdoor adventuring — all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is... Read more »

53 Comments

  • Avatar
    Laura LaLa
    August 31, 2017 at 11:21 am

    I have a tomato plant that sprouted in our front yard right by our front door. Every night and morning we are smelling what I could compare to a “skunk” smell and I started wondering if it might not be the tomato plant! Our garden is in the back, and this tomato plant had to have grown because of tomatoes we threw in the garbage and unfortunately had the bags ripped open before we acquired the heavy duty trash can we have now. I noticed someone said a cannabis smell, and it is similar though much stronger! Was wondering if the plants smell could be strong enough to be the culprit?

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Linda from Garden Betty
      September 3, 2017 at 6:19 am

      I’ve never thought my tomatoes had a skunky smell, could it be possible that there IS a skunk roaming around in your garden?! Though I suppose everyone’s olfactory senses are different enough to register different compounds in this complex scent.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Bill Weismuller
    November 1, 2015 at 12:34 pm

    I’m kind of late to this discussion but I wanted to add something interesting. If you ever grow Sungold cherry tomatoes (and I recommend you do!) you’ll find they have a slightly different leaf smell than other toms. Some people, not me, don’t like the Sungold smell, it almost has a cannabis leaf aroma, Take care!

    Reply
    • Linda Ly of Garden Betty
      Linda Ly of Garden Betty
      November 1, 2015 at 8:26 pm

      Interesting! I’ve only grown Sungold once, but I understand there are a few variations (heirloom and hybrid) and I don’t remember it ever smelling like a cannabis leaf. Now I’m curious to try it again!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Jane Scunthorpe
    October 7, 2015 at 11:34 am

    Gosh that tomato smell is so evocative – it takes me back through time in a nano second, to my grandfather’s greenhouse

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Kevin Espiritu
    October 2, 2015 at 4:58 pm

    I love the smell, but many others that I have over do not – and I’m growing my tomatoes in a downtown loft that only has one room! So let’s just say that some people have decided they’d rather hang out with me outside of my place rather than inside. Oh well…their loss 😉

    Reply
    • Linda Ly of Garden Betty
      Linda Ly of Garden Betty
      October 7, 2015 at 1:33 pm

      LOL!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Jeremy Heyl
    September 23, 2015 at 5:22 pm

    My dog loves that smell. She is an A1 tomato hunter (thief) when the plants start smelling ‘tomatoey’. She can’t see them when they are green (bc dogs are color blind) but when they get ripe and smell fruity on their own I have to harvest a day or three early and ripen on a shelf. She’s a 15 yr old golden- she can do what she wants.

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      Linda Ly
      September 25, 2015 at 11:22 pm

      LOL! One of my pugs is quite the omnivore as well. She used to wander the garden and snack the low-hanging fruit off my tomato plants! Now that she’s no longer mobile, I’ll feed her a few cherry toms as a treat. The things we do for our babies. 🙂

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Sillylittlesheep.blogspot.com
    September 20, 2015 at 11:17 am

    I love the smell, it reminds me of summers in my grandparents’ garden.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Aimee Levens
    September 17, 2015 at 9:46 pm

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

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      Linda Ly
      September 18, 2015 at 6:42 am

      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!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    thefolia
    September 17, 2015 at 10:47 am

    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!

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      Linda Ly
      September 17, 2015 at 11:34 am

      Enjoy!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    McKenzie
    September 17, 2015 at 6:59 am

    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!!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      thefolia
      September 17, 2015 at 10:49 am

      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!

      Reply
      • Avatar
        McKenzie
        September 17, 2015 at 1:07 pm

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

        Reply
    • Linda Ly
      Linda Ly
      September 17, 2015 at 11:33 am

      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

      Reply
      • Avatar
        McKenzie
        September 17, 2015 at 1:07 pm

        Very cool! Thanks for the info.

        Reply

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.