By Mike Pomranz
Updated July 24, 2015
Credit: © Rachel Shuler / Alamy

Despite the name, you won’t find the pimp tomato out working the city streets in a flamboyant suit and clutching a cane. “Pimp” is short for “Solanum pimpinellifolium” – the scientific name of a wild species of tomato that originated in Peru and Ecuador. And the story behind these tiny tomatoes, no bigger than a pea each, is more significant than you might think.

Pimps are important because they are the genetic forefathers of all tomatoes we eat today. In a history lesson that might blow your red-sauce-loving mind, tomatoes didn’t come to Europe until Spanish conquistadors brought them back from the New World somewhere around the turn of the 16th century. So until the mid-1500s Italians must have been making a lot alfredo sauces.

But pimps are still important today too. Since these tomatoes are wild, they are resilient and genetically diverse and can be used to help create new disease-resistant tomato varieties. For these reasons, scientists have been looking to collect seeds to help preserve different types of pimps. “If it wasn’t for the genes of these wild species, you wouldn’t be able to grow tomatoes in a lot of areas,” said Roger Chetelat, a tomato expert at the University of California, Davis.

However, pimps are becoming harder to find. Writing for Smithsonian, Barry Estabrook went to Peru to find pimps growing in the wild. Though he eventually came across one small plant, his search wasn’t easy. Due to agricultural production killing their habitat and wiping them out with herbicides, the pimps are becoming a dying breed. “In the coming decades, domestic tomatoes will doubtless face drought, new diseases, environmental destruction and climate change,” Estabrook wrote, stressing the importance of saving the pimps. “To survive, they will need all the genetic resources they can get.”

At the very least, #SaveThePimps would probably blow up on Twitter.