Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter

At this time of year, anyone with a patch of dirt thinks about popping in a few tomato plants. Stephen Forbes, Director of the Adelaide Botanic Garden looks at the history of this ubiquitous summer favourite.

For some reason I’ve always seen tomatoes (and lawns) as a predominately male domain in suburban gardens. Perhaps
that just comes from memories of my Dad but I think there’s more to it. Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter is an heirloom tomato bred by an Appalachian mechanic in the 1940s to help pay off the mortgage on his home. Even the categories for tomato varieties bear names like Oxheart and Beefsteak.

Tomatoes dominate gardeners’ intentions in November tomatoes like warm weather and there’s still a lot of it to come so you can sow tomato seed or plant seedlings in your garden now. I’m not going to give advice on how I’ll leave that to our excellent horticultural media and to Clive Blazey’s All About Tomatoes launched last week at the new Diggers Garden Shop in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens. All About Tomatoes presents an excellent description of how to select, sow and grow tomatoes.

Blazey’s passion for the role of home gardening in nurturing ourselves and the planet is what makes this book different to others. The focus on the diversity of tomato varieties available reflects his commitment to the value of heirloom varieties and the importance of maintaining the diversity and accessibility of the tomato’s genetic heritage. Such a view is not without detractors. Scientific American has published on-line The Case Against Heirloom Tomatoes citing Cornell University geneticist Steven Tanksley. Tanksley argues that the diversity of heirlooms can be accounted for by a handful of genes and that a genetically-based approach to plant development avoids the pitfalls of inbreeding that characterise many historical plant breeding programs. This divergence of views is hardly surprising the goals of industrial agriculture and home gardeners are quite different. For home gardeners, the diversity and success of heirloom varieties and the essential value for sustainability of continuing access to non-patented, open-pollinated seed that we can either harvest ourselves or acquire from a friend, a nursery or by mail-order remain significant considerations.

Last year the Adelaide Botanic Gardens was fortunate to see another tomato luminary, Amy Goldman, author of the 2008 photographic tour de force, The Heirloom Tomato From Garden To Table: Recipes, Portraits And History Of The World’s Most Beautiful Fruit published by Bloomsbury in New York. Blazey’s book (and seeds through Diggers Club) remains more accessible and useful here but you need to know about Goldman’s work. She is a colossus in the world of heirloom fruits and vegetables. She chairs Seed Savers Exchange and is on the board of the New York Botanical Garden. These are both significant roles – the Seed Savers Exchange has in excess of 30,000 members and has, quite reasonably although not without controversy, insured it’s seed holdings by depositing duplicate seeds with the Norwegian Svalbard Global Seed Vault (Adelaide Botanic Gardens seed collection of South Australian flora duplicates are held at the Millenium Seed Bank at Kew Gardens in London). Both Blazey and Goldman eschew GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

The original wild tomato appears to be native to Peru, although the domesticated tomato most likely came to Europe from the Vera Cruz – Puebla area of Mexico in the early 1500s as part of the Columbian Exchange. Tomato derives from a Nahuatl (Aztec) word – I suspect an absolute rarity in English! The first European reference is in Pietro Mattioli’s illustrated Herbal rather harshly reviewed by Melchiorre Guilandino, who became curator of the Padua Botanic Garen in 1561, as “… that dung-heap, the edition of 1554, that lurid rag-bag, constantly being retouched, but never complete, which he calls a commentary on Dioscorides.”

Now for the big question – is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? As a botanist of course I’ll argue that it’s a fruit derived from the ovary wall. However, the US Supreme Court (Nix v Hedden) has ruled otherwise. Justice Horace Gray acknowledged
the botanical definition but, in a unanimous decision, observed that tomatoes are vegetables in common parlance and eaten as a main course rather than as dessert. Gray also clarified the status of the cucumber, squash, pea and bean! I’m more inclined to Ira Gershwin’s conclusion.

Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 8 November 2011.

For more information about the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, visit the website.



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