Tomatoes – a worldwide favorite!
Last month I wrote about Heirloom and what it means in relation to Tomatoes. Well it is tomato time in the garden centres. From late August to late October tomato plants are en-masse in the nurseries and are a major part of plant sales. There are those gardeners that just want a plant or two for some fresh home grown flavour, there are those that have their favourite variety. Then there are those passionate tomato growers that want to have the best tomatoes in the street, or the first fruit or the biggest fruit. Whatever the reason they love their tomatoes and anyone with a passion for home grown food should be applauded.
The old rule was to have your tomatoes in buy Cup Day. This is still a good guide but there are so many varieties now available that will flower and fruit later. These varieties are cold tolerant and will produce fruit right through to start of winter. They just need to be kept free of frost.
A search on the web will reveal hundreds, if not thousands of cultivars. They are not all heirloom, indeed most are not. Like roses, there are people who spend their time breeding and selecting new varieties for release each year. Much of this work is being done on disease resistance as tomatoes are susceptible to a range of fungal, viral and insect attacks. There is also a lot of work being done to breed varieties that will not come true from seed to make sure you have to buy new plants every year. This is the real opposite of heirloom.
There are some amazing cultivars available around the world. Unfortunately many of these won’t make it Australia as the cost of importing tomato seed is very expensive and there would not be the sales to cover the costs. However there are still hundreds to choose from that are already here, and there are new ones being bred here. The real shame is that there are only three or four varieties available from the supermarket as fresh fruit. Indeed it is almost criminal that there is so little choice in the fresh fruit and veggie market place. However it is great for our industry. Tomatoes are easy to grow, easy to get producing fruit and easy to harvest and use. So we should be promoting not only the health benefits of home grown but the great taste benefits. After all we live to eat, not eat to live.
Tomatoes originated, like so many of our modern foods, southern and central America. The original plant had small cherry sized green/red fruits and was a rambling vine. In its native climate it is a perennial but in areas with cool to cold winters it is treated as an annual. Tomatoes have the Latin name Lycopersicon esculentum and a member of the nightshade family; Solanaceae. This family includes several very important crops, potatoes, capsicums and tobacco as well as the poisonous nightshades.
Again, like so many food crops, tomatoes were grown and used in the native countries much as they were originally found. However sometime around the 1500s they were taken to the Caribbean, southern Asia and southern Europe by the Spanish. As the plant is easy to grow and likes warm summers with mild nights it was well suited to most of Asia and Europe. It was slow to take off in many countries as a food probably due to its relationship to several poisonous plants. However once it found its way into various cuisines of the world it quickly became a very popular fruit and a mainstay for many diets.
Once the plant was being grown around the world the breeding started. Some targeted breeding to get larger fruit, or different colors or disease resistance and some selection from chance mutations. There are now over 7000 cultivars around the world. These come in four sizes: Berries - currant sized (0.5-1.0 cm). Cherries - cherry sized (1.0 – 3.0 cm), Standard – plum sized (4-10cm) and Beefsteak – mango sized (10-15cm). There is also the Roma types which are more elongated and favored for sauces and canning.
Tomatoes are excellent for your health as they are a fruit and have all those benefits and are also very high in lycopene which is a powerful antioxidant. As the part of the plant bears the seed the tomato is a fruit. However in the US in 1895 and again in 1990 the courts decided it is a vegetable. They are easy to grow and have two growth habits. The Determinate whereby the plant grows to a set height and width and the majority of the fruit ripens at once. This is great if you make a lot of sauce, chutneys, are fond of canning or are a commercial grower. However if you just like a tomato with the bacon and eggs then the indeterminate type is better suited. These varieties grow on vines with fruit ripening up the stem. They have known ‘height’ and can keep growing until knocked off by the cold or they are just too large. They can be espaliered with two to four stems.
To get the best out of this easy to grow and sell plant they should be displayed on their own in alphabetical order. They need to have labels with good pictures and full descriptions. A shelf of thirty varieties of tomatoes all with attractive labels facing the customer is a sure winner. October is the best time for planting in most southern states. It is when the warmer nights start and the danger of hard frosts is over. The tomato aficionados have generally bought their favorite varieties by then but are still on the look out for something different. The more average home gardener is just entering the veggie patch with the conclusion of the footy season.
The key is to make sure that the staff working in the herb/veggie section k now what each variety looks like, tastes like and if it has any special uses, like sauces, pickling, drying etc. This information should be on the label and is available on the internet. The Renaissance Herbs web site and my site both have good descriptions of a wide range of varieties. If possible grow some in the nursery and encourage customers to try the fruit.