As one who has devoted more than a fair amount of his adult life (and no small part of his worldly fortune) to the pursuit of delicious tomatoes, I would like to share with you some news from the world of tomato research. A recent New York Times article (Aug. 27) provides news on reinvigorated efforts by horticultural scientists to try to restore the lost flavor of commercially grown supermarket tomatoes.
The Times’ story begins by acknowledging that, for the most part, supermarket tomatoes are seriously lacking in good, old-fashioned tomato taste. As stated in the New York Times article, “The insipid-tomato problem is well known both to salad lovers and scientists.
Over the decades, the average tomato has become not only less tasty but less nutritious.”
Somewhere in the not so long ago, the commercial growers and their industry associations managed to convince retail grocers and the buying public to accept a kind of tomato that is grown to look good and travel well from fields in Florida and California to stores throughout the country.
I even remember reading something back in the mid-1980s about efforts to develop a cube-shaped tomato so that more tomatoes could be securely packed in the shipping trays. Blessedly that was an idea whose time did not ever come. However, in order to breed these business-friendly qualities, they managed to breed out most of the taste in commercially grown tomatoes.
According to the Times’, commercially grown tomato plants tend to produce a lot of fruit all at one time. This makes the work of growing, picking and packing a more manageable process rather than waiting for tomatoes to dribble in over weeks and months. Unfortunately this all-at-once fruiting prevents adequate development of enough of the sugars that are so important in delivering good taste in tomatoes. The loss of taste seems to be a genetic tradeoff for being able to profitably provide uniform tomato produce throughout the year.
Now along comes Dr. Harry J. Klee of the University of Florida to lead work in restoring good taste to commercially grown tomatoes. He has been studying the genetic and molecular basis for what makes a good tasting tomato. This is no small, off-the-cuff study. Apparently there are a myriad of chemical factors, some major, many minor, that go into producing something as elusive as good tomato taste.
Dr. Klee is working with another researcher, a Dr. Linda Bartoshuk of the University of Florida’s Center for Smell and Taste. (Doesn’t that sound like an interesting place to work!) She is conducting studies to determine what chemical factors lead people to say that a particular combination produces something as elusive as good tomato taste. It is not an easy task.
Dr. Klee has several objectives in all this work. He wants to produce a tomato that can be grown commercially, one that transports well and one that will still retain most of the flavor that we find in some of the best heirloom tomatoes.
Part of his quest is to develop a tomato using traditional breeding methods rather than doing so through genetic modification. He also wants it to be a tomato that tastes so good that people are encouraged to eat healthier food. That’s asking a lot. However, according to Dr. Klee, he hopes to have results available for commercial growers in four or five years. Seeds for home gardeners could be available within two years.
Are Dr. Klee and Dr. Bartoshuk great Americans or what? Is there a Nobel Prize for Tomatoes? All I can say is God bless them for their efforts. Perhaps after they are done with tomatoes they can begin work on those vile tasting Brussels sprouts.
Finally, let me again remind you of the upcoming Dunwoody Nature Center plant sale. The plant sale runs through October 5th. You can check out the plants on offer and place your order via the Dunwoody Nature Center’s website (www.dunwoodynature.org.) Purchases will be ready for pick up on Oct.11-12.
This year they are offering 25 excellent plant selections including red twig dogwood, Limelight hydrangeas, mahonia, tickseed coreopsis and other great selections for our area. They will also, for the first time, be offering bags of some of the best soil amendments available. These include CLM perma-till soil amendment to tame our awful clay soil, Hen Mixture and Worm Castings. These are all great products for these great plants.
Jeff Coghill has been gardening in DeKalb County for more than 30 years and has probably killed at least one of each kind of plant he has tried before getting another one to thrive. He is a gardening volunteer at the Dunwoody Nature Center and works closely with members of the DeKalb Master Gardeners group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.