How A Seed Saver Found One Of Our Favourite Tomatoes

Seed Saver.

When you go to the farmers market this time of 12 months, tomatoes are strutting their stuff in all kinds of superb and quirky hues: inexperienced striped, white, pink, even purplish-brown.

They boast intriguing names, like Mortgage Lifter, Arkansas Traveler and Pink Berkeley Tie Dye. Some are true heirlooms, handed down over a long time or centuries.

Others are model new to the world, the progeny of the newest cross-breeding experiments.

We acquired to questioning simply who, apart from farmers, is to thank for this increasing panoply.

And we discovered that whereas there are various skilled breeders tinkering with the fascinating traits that present up within the new varieties, newbie breeders .

Passionate seed savers and collectors — additionally play a significant function in discovering fruit and vegetable varieties guarded and nurtured by households over generations.

Now and again, these amateurs persuade seed firms that the remainder of the world will need to take pleasure in one thing they’ve found.

Craig LeHoullier, a retired chemist from Raleigh, N.C., can take credit score for introducing us to the Cherokee Purple tomato, probably the most widespread heirlooms grown and offered right this moment.

You would be forgiven in case your first impression of this fruit, with its ungainly bulges and tones of brown, inexperienced and purple, was dismissive. However its taste persistently knocks socks off, with its steadiness of candy, acid and savory — even a touch of smoke.

LeHoullier is — it is honest to say — obsessive about tomatoes and their tales. With greater than 3,000 varieties, he has one of many largest private tomato collections within the nation.

In his small yard at his dwelling within the Raleigh suburbs, he can develop solely 200 crops, so every year he should pore over the gathering to resolve what makes the reduce.

An avid gardener for a lot of his life, LeHoullier, 57, joined the Seed Savers Trade in 1986 and commenced connecting with different gardeners and seed savers to commerce ideas and favourite varieties.

Quickly, LeHoullier had constructed a status as a tomato connoisseur, becoming a member of a small group of different hard-core tomato seed savers dedicated to reviving heirlooms.

(Heirlooms are a lot friendlier to seed saving than the ever-present purple hybrid tomatoes that dominate the business market.)

At some point in 1990, a packet of tomato seeds arrived in LeHoullier’s mail with a handwritten observe. The sender was John Inexperienced of Sevierville, Tenn., who wrote that the seeds got here from excellent tomatoes he’d gotten from a lady who obtained them from her neighbors.

The neighbors stated that the varietal had been of their household for 100 years, and that the seeds had been initially obtained from Cherokee Indians.

“It was a query of being in the fitting place on the proper time,” says LeHoullier, who’s now engaged on a e-book on heirloom tomatoes. “Inexperienced had the forethought to ship them to me, hoping that I might love them.”

His hunch was right, and LeHoullier was so impressed with the tomatoes the colour of a “dangerous leg bruise” that he named them Cherokee Purple and despatched his pals at just a few seed firms some seeds.

“If Craig hadn’t stated, ‘This tomato is de facto wonderful,’ I doubt we might have tried it,” says Ira Wallace, who coordinates the variability choice for Southern Publicity Seed Trade, a cooperative seed firm that is helped to advertise and disseminate many heirloom varieties.

“It was an unsightly tomato, and earlier than all these heirlooms got here alongside, all we knew had been purple and yellow tomatoes.”

Rob Johnston is the founder and CEO of Johnny’s Chosen Seeds, one other firm that acquired the Cherokee Purple from LeHoullier and now does good enterprise from the seed.

Johnston says it is uncommon that an newbie seed saver discovers a range that turns into commercially widespread, nevertheless it’s extra probably for tomatoes than, say, carrots.

“Tomatoes are all the time a favourite of seed savers as a result of they’re straightforward to avoid wasting,” says Johnston.

“And tomato seeds have lengthy viability, so they could sit in a glass jar in anyone’s pantry for a few years earlier than somebody discovers it and decides to continue to grow it.” However these purple carrots you may spy on the market? That is the work {of professional} breeders, says Johnston.

Joe Brunetti, a horticulturalist with Smithsonian Gardens, prunes Cherokee Purple tomato vines on the American Museum of Pure Historical past Victory Backyard. Eliza Barclay/NPR cover caption

Joe Brunetti, a horticulturalist with Smithsonian Gardens, prunes Cherokee Purple tomato vines on the American Museum of Pure Historical past Victory Backyard.

As for the household lore that usually accompanies heirloom seeds just like the Cherokee Purple? Its accuracy is all the time arduous to guage, says LeHoullier. “It is one of many extra fascinating and irritating points of pursuing heirlooms.

For the overwhelming majority we’ve a tantalizing style of historical past, however there are all the time extra inquiries to ask,” he says.

As for the Cherokee legend, Joe Brunetti, a horticulturalist with Smithsonian Gardens who manages the Victory Backyard on the Nationwide Museum of American Historical past, says it is fairly conceivable that the Cherokees had been rising tomatoes in Tennessee over 100 years in the past.

“We develop the Cherokee Purple within the Victory Backyard as a result of it tolerates the humidity and illnesses right here higher than the opposite darkish tomatoes,” says Brunetti. “That is sensible if it comes from the Tennessee River Valley initially, which can also be humid.”

And seed savers say discoveries just like the Cherokee Purple assist protect not simply genetic variety but in addition historical past.

“The tales themselves provide a snapshot of a time and place and area — they’re an actual wealth of cultural historical past,” says Sara Straate, who leads a undertaking to doc the tales behind the seeds within the assortment of the Seed Savers Trade.


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