Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The History of the Tomato

Welcome back to a belated edition of Lost in the Farmers Market, today I’m going to talk a bit about the origins of the tomato as its prime time for tomatoes. Also in today’s article we have a plant spotlight triple-header with three interesting plants. Before I get into the any of that I have a few things to say about last weekend’s Urban Farm Day.

For those just tuning for the first time the Urban Farm Day is an event organized by a local group called Sustainable Sandhills. The event itself is a family-oriented public showing chock full of how-to displays and workshops ranging from how to raise chickens, ducks and rabbits in your backyard through bee keeping and victory gardening. Despite the name it’s really a backyard gardening event where you can find cool stuff, and make good connections with experts and other gardeners. With that said, the event last week went well with a good attendance and many good exchanges of info at my booth. The weather was cooperative, and in short I doubt we could have asked for a more beautiful setting for the event. I’d like to thank Sustainable Sandhills for hosting the event and thank everyone who stopped by the booth. As a final note for anyone who missed the event and wanted to pick up some plants there is some stock left, all you have to do is send an inquiry .

With the UFD wrap-up covered; we move on to one of today’s features The Plant Spotlight. Today we have three plants for you to consider in your garden and for your home.
  1. Ascelpias tuberosa or Milkweed
  2. Coreopegia woodii or Rosary Vine
  3. Penstemon barbatus ‘Delft Blue Riding Hood’

The first plant is a easy one, I’ve spoke about Milkweed before, for those who missed the ‘A weed only in name’ series of posts think of this as a prime example of a plant who just has a bad name. Commonly also known as Pleurisy Root, this native was once used as an expectorant for wet coughs essentially it’s root was used to reduce mucous in the throat and pulmonary system. Today it’s more used for it’s beautiful flowers as seen in the picture below.

The bright orange flowers of Milkweed are as much a sign of summer as the yellow flowers of Forsythia are a sign of spring.

I might add the name ‘Milkweed’ comes from the fact that it can be prolific, and when the foliage and stems are broken this plant will exude a milky sap. The real value is of course the flowers and the fact that they produce a lot of nectar and are a preferred food of hummingbirds and pollinators.  A good stand of milkweed can often reach up to four feet tall and I’m sure an budding etymologist would have a field day counting the critters that have stopped buy to get a meal. The one thing to remember, from seed you may not see a bloom for more then two years. Biologically Milkweed unless kept really happy with a fertile but well drained soil and full sun takes so long because it has to develop a long taproot. Sadly most milkweed do not take kindly to transplanting once established, thankfully their seed is viable for years after collecting.

The rosary vine is a unique house plant that has a series of other common names such as chain of hearts, collar of hearts and string of hearts. Basically for once in the history of agronomy we have a plant where everyone kind of saw the same thing in a single plant and kept the names relatively close.

 The Rosary Vine is a pretty houseplant by itself, but as seen in the center it's unusual flowers are kind of cool to look at even if they do look like some kind of strange alien creature.

As far as houseplants go the rosary vine is an excellent candidate for a hanging basket. The one thing to remember is that rosary vine will root in any soil it touches so it may be wise to keep a eye out for its wandering habits. In case your wondering this plant is native to parts of Africa and thus like quire a few houseplants from the region is a succulent that requires soil with excellent drainage and decent fertility. Left to its own devices the Rosary Vine will need little care save for the occasional watering it will reward this semi-neglect with beautiful variegated leaves and unusual flowers. Cuttings taken from this succulent root readily with a simple layering method, so you can pass this plant around to your friends at a whim.

Wow, at least that was my precise comment upon seeing this plant for the first time. For those of you familiar with Penstemon or Beardtongue,  this family of rugged perennials that falls under the family of Plantaginaceae, which includes the veronica, snapdragons digitalis (foxglove), angelonia (summer snapdragon) and a few others. What makes this particular plant fascinating is obviously the color, penstemon is known for it’s shades of cream, white, yellow, pink, orange and red, but here we have a solid blue color with all the shape and form of a traditional beardtongue.

 I know it's not a great specimen in fact this one's bloom is on it's way out but you can get beardtongue to bloom a little more by deadheading the flower stalks before they go to seed.

What is not to love about this, finally one of the most durable, heat and drought proofed perennials can do more then just be flash with it being blue flowered it can finally be supporting color. Paired with a decent ornamental sage it can now add some serious effect to a bed. All penstemon asks for in return is a decent soil with good drainage and regular water during times of stress. Some fertilizer in early spring will aid growth greatly and improve overall vigor. If you can find this variety at a garden center go ahead and nab a few, it’s totally worth it.

Now with the plant spotlights handled onward to the main topic; today I want to talk briefly about the origins of the common tomato. Admittedly there is a lot of conjecture out there in both print and the web as to the origins of the modern tomato. Some truths remain evident in its origins and original introduction to Europe. The name is where we first start to find the trail, typically most garden books will blithely skip over the botanical Latin names of vegetables as if that isn’t important but it tells a lot. The botanical name for the common tomato is Lycopersicon esculentum which as of recent times has remained the name but currently it has been changed to Solanum lycopersicum.
The original name tells us a lot about the plant because obviously it is the name picked for it by Europeans, it denotes what the earliest tomatoes looked like.

  1. Lyco = Wolf.
  2. Persicon = Peach colored.
  3. Esculentum = Edible

This is a good example of what early tomatoes might have looked like, small fruits of variable color. Note the darker 'shoulders' or tops of the fruit, typical colored varieties such as brown berry color up there first.

So what we have is an edible wolf peach, which tells us a few clear things, firstly the first tomatoes to be studied were likely peach shaped and bore a peach coloration. The wolf part of the name is somewhat of a mystery, I’ve personally been unable to find out why that is in the name. But this of course has told us what the first tomatoes looked like when they got to Europe. The name ‘Tomato’ itself is a European pronunciation of the word ‘Tomatl’ from the Nahuatl dialect which literally means ‘swelling fruit’. While not expressly verified, it is thought that either Spanish Conquistador Cortes or The explorer Chrisopher Columbus were the first noted persons to bring the tomato back to Europe.
However the Tomato did not appear in European literature until about 1544,  being noted as an herbal plant under the name ‘pomo d’oro’ or golden apple as written by Pietro Andrea Mattioli. That said, there are certain select cultural inferences that perhaps the tomato spread father then that before that as it is known that inter-continental contact occurred long before the Europeans arrived at the shores of the Americas.

This is a good example of a heirloom tomato that bears the large irregular fruit mutation. These Black Krim tomatoes bear large fruit on overall larger plants with a less vine-like habit then a currant tomato. The loss of the vine-habit is a product of cultivation and selection.

What is clear is that the large-fruited tomato was a genetic mutation that is likely to have occurred under cultivation by the Mesoamericans and is likely to be the direct ancestor of many of our modern large varieties. As noted in my article on Figs last week this mutation would have been advantageous for the Tomato species as it allowed its seeds to spread greatly thus increasing the chances of select mutations furthering it’s spread more.

The interesting thing about the tomato is the myth of its being poisonous or unfit for consumption. This myth comes from the fact that occasionally meals would be eaten off of plates composed of metals that had an amount of lead. Now remember in the 1400’s metallurgy was not as precise as it is now, so metal implements often had trace amounts of other stuff in them silver for instance often had lead. At the time tomatoes hadn’t been hybridized as much as they are now, so their relative acidity was higher, and well that acid reacted with the lead and instantly one had a new sort of poisoning.  The tomato got the blame and no one ever thought to look at the dining implements for some time.

With all that said and I admit it’s quite a bit, even for a condensed version it’s a big read now, I want to cover how to grow tomatoes successfully in the southern climate. Keep in mind yours truly is from the northern state of New Jersey where growing high quality tomatoes is practically a second occupation.  The garden state has long been eclipsed in volume of production; however the quality is a source of long-standing pride.

  1. Pick a variety: Pick a variety of tomato that will fit your environment best. For instance if you have nothing but hot sun, pick a variety like ‘Solar Fire’ or ‘Tropic VFN’. If you want a prolific vine that produces scores of small fruit try ‘Red Currant’ or ‘Sweet 100’, For heirlooms I recommend ‘Cherokee Purple’ ‘Pink Brandywine’ ‘Black Krim’ ‘Paul Robeson’ and lastly for containers there is the tried and true ‘Patio’ tomato. Just remember you can prolong the production season by growing your tomatoes in partial shade.
  2. Start early: It does not matter who you are, if you can start your tomatoes indoors in January do so, the earlier in the year you start a tomato, the less delay you have when it gets around planting time. A good reason for this comes with dealing with slower growing large-fruited heirlooms, they sometimes take longer. Cherry, grape and currant type tomatoes however grow so fast that you may be able to wait until February or early March. Every bit of cool season lead you can give your tomatoes the better.
  3. Improve your soil quality: If planting in ground dig an area that is 1 foot deep by 1 foot wide where you intend to plant your tomatoes. If you are planting a row of tomatoes then dig a trench as long as needed but maintain the 1 foot deep and wide aspects. Mix 1 part excavated soil with 1 part compost or composed animal manure (think black hen) and mix with 2 parts High quality top soil or low-grade potting soil (something cheap like Hyponex). Mix the soil materials together well and refill the trench, you want to have enough soil material so after filling you have a slight mound over where you intend to plant. This mounding will counter the soil’s slumping or sinkage after watering.
  4. Plant your tomatoes deep burying the stems up to 1” deep on their stems. This deep burial will promote new additional rooting and the original roots will develop more deeply increasing resistance to drought. The new roots will take over as surface feeder roots and thus additional vigor and stability will result. Make sure to either to put on a cage or stake at this point; you don’t necessarily need to tie your tomatoes down unless they are already more then a foot tall but it’s easier to install the supports now.
  5. Per foot of current plant height make sure to apply 1 teaspoon of Epsom salts, and repeat this application once every two weeks readjusting the dosage to compensate for growth. This simple fertilizer application will promote stronger growth with better disease resistance and tolerance for damage and ward off blossom-end rot a common nutrient deficiency in the south that causes the bottoms of tomatoes to go soft and rot ruining the fruit before harvest.
  6. Remember the Mulch: In the south if you can get away with it remember to apply a fine organic mulch such as pine bark, otherwise pine straw is equally good. Personally I have switched to pine straw because it seems to filter sunlight, slow weed growth and, seems to create an area of cooler air just above the soil that reduces soil temperature. We all know that most tomatoes may refuse to set bud if the nighttime temperatures are above a certain temperature. What is not said is that cool roots can overcome some of this.
  7. As a final note remember to fertilize and water regularly during the hottest summer months, Late July though early September can be a real monster for drought and heat. You must be prepared to handle this yearly weather restriction. The average tomato plant might need as much as a gallon of water a day if the temperature is around the 90 degree mark and more if there is no precipitation.
  8. As a final note; always evaluate at the end of the season, what worked, what didn’t work, did you have too many plants, too few plants and so on. Over a few years you can fine tune a plan to meet your needs.
 Thank you for reading  this edition of Lost in the Farmer's Market, I know it's a long read but a lot came to the forefront within the last week, Next week there will be another multiple plant spotlight, and we will be focusing on another garden topic. Just a note the month of May is for spring planting if you want to get annuals in try and do it before it heats up in June. Thanks for reading.

No comments:

Post a Comment