taming the feral everglades currant tomato

A few years ago after the culmination of several inspiring events and ideas, I decided it would be fun to try taming the wild and beloved Everglades currant tomato. It’s a prolific plant in our sub tropical climate that otherwise mocks and torments other tomatoes and their attempts to make it here. But there are a few issues with these tiny maters I’ll explain later. Let’s just say that farmers would never grow them, and gardeners with small spaces would probably regret it!

Tasty but tiny and need picking daily, prone to cracking.

I met Craig LeHoullier, a self-taught plant breeder, tomato lover, author, and gardener at the annual Seed Savers Exchange Conference and Campout several years ago. His love for tomatoes and creating new varieties was infectious, and I caught the bug! Then a couple of years later, I went on a road trip to visit his driveway tomato lab in Raleigh, NC. I took my friend Tim, an aspiring plant breeder and tomato lover because they had to meet and become friends. I listened to them blabber on excitedly about things I didn’t understand as we rocked in our chairs on Craig’s amazing back porch, overlooking his garden and bird feeders.

Tim (left) and Craig in the driveway tomato lab in Raleigh, NC.

I had an aha moment, when I realized that this kind of work doesn’t require one to have a degree or any experience with plant breeding at all to try it! Craig learned how to do this on his own with an unrelated professional background in pharmaceuticals. And he did it in his driveway. In pots. While facilitating with others across the globe, the creation of so many new varieties that you can now buy online in many seed catalogs (check out the Dwarf Tomato Breeding Project). Tim taught himself as well, and so has nearly every human in previous generations that grew food and saved seeds. Which was most people, because we didn’t have the luxury not to procure our own sustenance.

Inspired but not quite ready, I just let that planted seed rest. A few years later at the Organic Seed Growers Conference put on by Organic Seed Alliance in early 2020, I then caught the “landrace plant breeding” bug from Joseph Lofthouse. Joseph is a Utah farmer who turned modern plant breeding standards upside down by advocating for highly promiscuous plants and strategies to encourage lots of genetic diversity and resilience. His crops and seeds are beautiful. He just wrote a book about it, and a signed copy is on it’s way to my house now! I can’t wait!!

The Lofthouse Landrace Bush Bean “variety”. Note: not uniform.

Many years ago as a new grower and seed saver, I had fallen in love with the Everglades currant tomato. It’s a different species (Solanum pimpinellifolium) than your regular garden tomato (Solanum lycopersicum). Supposedly naturalized in South Florida, this feral plant is spread by birds. I have seen it with my own eyes, the red birds feast on them and poop them out in my yard! I don’t have to plant them anymore.They are tasty and abundant little flavor packed little fruits, and certainly the most resilient tomato I had ever grown.

The cardinals in our backyard are comfortable enough with me to let me watch their babies grow up. I can’t be sure, but I’m pretty sure they are fed a diet partially including Everglades currant tomatoes.

When you have success as a gardener, it makes you feel pretty good. I like saving seeds from successful feel-good plants and sharing them with others so they may feel good too, and have food to eat and share.

But. She is too wild and takes up lots of space, fruits are arguably too small even though they make up for it in flavor. Halp! I want the flavor and resilience in our climate but a more tame plant with larger fruit.

Call in my friend Craig! He hand-pollinated a Florida Everglades Tomato with a dwarf variety Tanuda Red and ta-da!!! A breeding project begins!

So we are now as they say in the industry…in the F4 phase. That is the fourth generation of saved seeds from the original cross, are in the ground growing now. The season is nearly over and we are narrowing down our selection to move forward. Each week Sarah and I ranked each of 46 plants we could cram into our seed saving gardens at Grow Hub. We ranked them on overall vigor, health, disease resistance, sprawl, and of course- flavor!

Rookie mistake: we planted them too close. I *thought* since they should be “dwarfier” that we could get away with 3′ spacing like a regular tomato and still have plenty of room to see each individual plant. WRONG!!! It was a jungle and we had issues. Next year, 4 or 5′ (mostly because we are evaluating and need to see) and every other row! Plus it was a bad/good year depending how you look at, for venomous moccasins that we found TWICE in the tomato patch.

We farmed the tasting part out to many of our Working Food friends and followers. Flavor is subjective and if it were just up to me to rate them, we’d be in trouble. One person’s spit-yuck pile, is another’s #1, so we had a lot of people provide input. We are winnowing down our selection based on overall plant vigor and community input on flavor.

46 plants (all from ONE plant’s seeds saved earlier (plant # 16) in total, each of which was kept separate so we could save seeds, admire the fruits and take notes, and taste them. It was ALOT. OF. WORK. I am so grateful for Sarah and Jenna helping keep all these sorted and organized.

We had a lot of plants that couldn’t hide their mother’s feral tendencies. While the fruits were much larger (think regular to very large cherry size), the plants were still a bit much! A few were true dwarfs. So we’ll narrow it down soon, and get excited for next season, F5. The fifth generation.

It takes about 8 generations to get a stable new variety. So we are getting closer! Soon we hope to release an open-source seed for you to enjoy! Grow it, save your own seeds, make your own new varieties. We’ll never hold any patents or power over seeds, they are a common good for everyone.

One of our tasters and friends Wendy, also takes these glorious photos of plants. These are a few different fruits. Hard to tell the scale, but they are much larger fruits than the Everglades.

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