This week you might have come across a picture on Twitter of curling tendrils sprouting out of tomatoes and other fruits. The image might have made your skin crawl — who else thought of an alien host taking over our produce? — but there’s actually a perfectly reasonable scientific explanation for what’s going on with these tomatoes. And once you read it, you might hesitate before immediately throwing away your old fruit.
Carol Quish, a horticulturist at the University of Connecticut, explains the phenomenon this way: The seeds inside have begun to germinate and are growing new plants (hence the worm-like tendrils). The term from this process is called vivipary, or ‘live birth.’ It sounds more disturbing than it actually is: Vivipary commonly occurs in tomatoes, pears, apples, and citrus fruits (like lemons, which are also included in the photos posted on Twitter).
If you see this happen at home, don’t panic: There has not been an outbreak of a virus and your kitchen isn’t about to be overcome with vines. Your tomato is simply old. Quish says that typically, vivipary happens in tomatoes and other fruits that have been sitting out, probably on the countertop, for an extended period. Hormones in the seeds force them to lay dormant — but when that hormone runs its course, the seeds suddenly awaken and begin to sprout.
The fruit’s “warm, moist” flesh (again, ick) provides the perfect environment for a seed to germinate and grow. If the tomato has already been sliced, you might find bunches of newly hatched sprouts, or if it’s still whole, sprouts will poke through the skin. At this point, your tomato is likely decomposing, by the way, but you don’t have to throw it out! You can pot the rotting tomato in soil, and it may eventually grow into a new plant, which could produce fruit of its own.
From death sprouts life, I guess. That’s actually pretty cool.
If you see this happening to your old produce (or suspect it might be happening), you can double check by simply cutting the fruit in half and looking for sprouts. If you have the resources, try planting it in soil and see if a new plant grows. There’s another upside: Doing so would help reduce food waste. It might look gross, but these sprouts are basically baby plants, which will someday be delicious, totally edible fruits.
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