A much-prized golden-orange tomato is the living legacy of a woman named Djena Lee, who cultivated the sweet, tangy fruit when she lived in Minnesota during the 1920s. The plant is growing in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden today and will be one of the varieties featured during HeirloomTomato Weekend. The event will take place from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, August 24 and 25.
According to the rich lore surrounding heirloom tomatoes, Lee gave some of her treasured plants to a 15-year-old boy called Frank Morrow. He would maintain the variety for decades and it’s said that ‘Djena Lee’s Golden Girl’ (Solanum lycopersicum ‘Djena Lee’s Golden Girl’) took first place at the Chicago Fair for ten consecutive years. Morrow, who became a reverend living in St. Paul, MN, passed the seeds along to the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in the late 1980s, and the seeds are commercially available today.
“I love the stories of seeds being passed down between generations of gardeners,” said Lisa Hilgenberg, horticulturist in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden. “They tell us who grew the plants, how the seeds got here. They speak to the nostalgia surrounding heirlooms and give us an emotional connection to our food.”
Most people think of an heirloom as a hand-made quilt, brooch, antique desk or other treasured possession passed down within a family. The items help family members remember where they came from and remind them of what life was like back in the days of their great-grandparents and earlier generations. The glorious and ever-increasing diversity of today’s selection heirloom tomatoes speaks to the tradition of passing down precious tomato varieties in a similar fashion.
Visitors can learn more about these traditions during Heirloom Tomato Weekend, a two-day event including guided tours, cooking classes, grafting trial, family drop-in activities, tomato-related items from special vendors, and a plant give-away while supplies last. Special seed-saving demonstrations will show visitors how to pass down their own heirloom tomatoes. A detailed schedule of activities is included below.
New generations of heirloom tomatoes remain true to their parents because the plants are open-pollinating and rarely cross breed with other types of tomatoes. Most heirlooms have a vining or indeterminate growth habit, producing a succession of tomatoes over the growing season. Fruit colors range from bright yellow to deep purple. The tomatoes can also be striped or bicolored and grow in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, from small pear shapes to large globes. Heirlooms are prized for their taste, which people describe with such terms as deep, robust, rich, sweet, salty, smoky and winey. Several taste-test winners are growing in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden, including ‘Gold Medal’ (Solanum lycopersicum ‘Gold Medal’), a big slicing tomato that took first prize in the 2008 Seed Saver Exchange competition.
Visitors attending Heirloom Tomato Weekend will be able to see many of the Garden’s vintage varieties at their peak fruiting period. Growing among the dozens of tomato varieties planted in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden this year is the Abraham Lincoln tomato (Solanum lycopersicum ‘Abraham Lincoln’), introduced by Rockford, IL, seed producer H.W. Buckbee and now growing in the White House vegetable garden. Our living collection also includes the Italian heirloom ‘Costoluto Genovese’ (Solanum lycopersicum ‘Costoluto Genovese’), a deeply ribbed, rich red tomato—one of the first to be introduced in Europe in the 1500s. Other heirloom tomato varieties trace back to Russia, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia and the Ukraine.
“This year the collection includes a tomato for every taste and garden space. We even have an ongoing trial of grafted heirlooms,” Hilgenberg said. The ‘Czech’s Bush’ (Solanum lycopersicum ‘Czech Bush’) is one of few determinate, or bushy, heirlooms and does not require staking as do the indeterminate varieties. The popular ‘Paul Robeson’ (Solanum lycopersicum ‘Paul Robeson’) is one of three heirlooms that have been grafted onto a more robust root stock to explore the possibility of increasing disease resistance and extending the harvest window of the varieties.
Seed-saving demonstrations will be offered throughout the event to show gardeners how to create their own heirloom traditions. “Gardeners can become preservationists of their own seed heritage,” Hilgenberg said. “By saving seeds from the best fruits from the best plants in their garden, gardeners can develop varieties well suited to that particular growing area. Seed saving also helps restore genetic diversity to plant life over the long run.” For tips on saving your heirloom tomato seeds, click here.
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