"Why isn’t a tomato a vegetable, dad?"

My vegetable garden, it turns out, is mostly fruit!

Shoot. She’s almost 11. The questions have gotten harder. This is a “gotcha” question for sure. Short answer is, it’s a fruit. “What is a fruit, dad?” Damn. Can’t go any farther from here. Luckily we have the Interwikigooglenets.

It’s very confusing. I’ll try and sort out what I learned.

Fruit is both a botanical AND a culinary term.

Botanically, it is the ripened ovaries and surrounding tissue of flowering plants, the device, of which, plants use to disseminate seeds. So fruits include pears, apples, strawberries, peaches, plums AND squash, pumpkin, cucumbers, tomatoes, peas, beans, corn, eggplant and peppers. Other fruits are not edible and downright poisonous.

Did you know that nasturtiums (shown right) are related to cabbage and are one of the few plants where everything is edible – flower, leaves, unripened seeds and the roots?

Fruit, as a culinary term, generally means any sweet-tasting plant product associated with seeds.

A nut is technically a fruit with a very thin seed wall, and are considered edible seeds, like walnuts, pecans, corn, wheat and rice.

Vegetable is ONLY a culinary term. Vegetables do not exist in the world of botany. A vegetable in the culinary world is any edible part of a savory plant:

  • Buds (broccoli, cauliflower, artichokes)
  • Seeds (corn)
  • Leaves (spinach, lettuce, kale)
  • Stems (celery, rhubarb, asparagus)
  • Underground stems (potatoes, yams)
  • Whole immature plants (bean sprouts)
  • Roots (carrots, beets, radishes)
  • Bulbs (onions, garlic)
  • Fruits (tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peppers)
  • Legumes (peas & beans)
  • Whole unripe seed pods of legumes (green beans, snap peas)

And berries? Botanically they are a simple fruit having seeds and pulp produced from a single ovary. That means huckleberries, lingonberries, currants, Mayapples, seagrapes and elderberries among others.

Culinarily, berries include blackberries, raspberries, strawberries. They are botanical fruit, but they are not true berries.

Confused? I seem to have been able to make some sense of it to her, for now. The puberty & sex “talk” was a breeze compared to this.

I have a long-time garden blog, a popular garden on America's largest garden tour, and have co-written a book on garden design titled, "Buffalo-Style Gardens: Create a Quirky, One-of-a-Kind Private Garden with Eye-Catching Designs" When I'm not doing all that, I am an advertising designer always out looking to design things to promote your business. Look me up at #jcharlier.

11 comments on “"Why isn’t a tomato a vegetable, dad?"

  1. Good post! Great info on the nasturtium.


  2. Ah ha .. Ain’t children lovable.


  3. Anonymous

    Kudos to you dad for taking the time and recognizing the importance of your child’s inquisitive nature. The world’s inhabitants would be much happier if all fathers took note of your example. 🙂


  4. Anonymous

    And let me add another chapter to your story. In the late 1800’s in the US, there was a 10% tariff on veggies, but not on fruits. So even though tomatoes are botanically fruits (or berries), the Supreme Court ruled that because they were commonly regarded by the average person as a vegetable, they were to be classified as vegetables and be subject to the tariff. Apparently veggie gardening was political long before gardenrant and others started beating the drum.


  5. Dave,You have young kids. Beware. The pickled unripened nasturtium seeds can be used as capers.blossom,Some are. Mine is.Grace,Ha! I should not be the example for any father. We joke that by end of day on January 1 each year, we will have already lost out on the parent of the year award.SusanGardenChick,Botanical classifications are science. Culinary classifications are arbitrary. During Reagan’s administration, the USDA declared sugar-laden ketchup a vegetable / fruit when used as an ingredient or condiment. Thus counting ketchup as a vegetable / fruit serving in school lunches, helping meet federal requirements for two servings of vegetables / fruit and qualifying school lunch programs for federal funding.


  6. Oh my! I learned so much! 🙂 I’m so glad that my son never asked me such a difficult question! You rock, Jim! :-)Cameron


  7. My kids have tomatoes figured out already, but the other day the girl (age 8), asked if a cucumber was a fruit. I pointed out the rule that if it forms from a flower, it’s a fruit, and she nodded. Then she asked, how about pickles, are they fruit too?


  8. Even more simplified: if you can answer the question “Does it have seeds?” with “yes,” then it’s a fruit.


  9. Cameron,I learned much too. And I tried explaining some of this to one of her friends today and I got some real skeptical looks.MMD,Kids say the darnedest things, that’s why they should be seen and not heard.TC,You’ve simplified my spiel significantly. Now, do you know the only fruit has seeds on its exterior? Fans of TV’s West Wing might know.


  10. Thank you for explaning so much on the culinary term of fruits and vegetables. Nice post.


  11. Thanks for the post, we will post your Hydroponic vegetable gardening indoors article. I will post for our customers to see your articles on your blog Hydroponic vegetable gardening indoors


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