By MELODY JAMESON
BALM — Perhaps there’s no perfect tomato, but a University of Florida plant breeder here has perfected a hybrid that’s getting rave reviews.
And considering how many there are, that just may be saying something. Botanically a fruit, but treated in most cultures as a vegetable, tomatoes are utilized around the world, enjoyed fresh in a variety of dishes, baked in numerous casseroles, serving as basis for many sauces and soups plus preserved by canning. They come in some 7500 varieties around the globe, can be sized from the can’t-eat-just-one grape to the jumbo hamburger-suited beefsteak and in 2008 were produced worldwide to the tune of 130 million tons, according to Wikipedia.
Then, there’s the matter of tomato characteristics, both revered and reviled going back to its origins, thought to be in Peru in the early to mid-1500s. Spreading from South America to Mexico where the Aztecs apparently relished them cooked with peppers and then through the Caribbean to Europe where a Naples cookbook mentioned them in 1692, and on to North America where the heat-loving plants first turned up on Carolina plantations, what would become the red tomato also acquired a bit of a checkered history.
Throughout its five centuries, it’s gotten good names and bad.
The Aztecs reportedly dubbed the fruity veggie “tomatl” from which “tomato” eventually evolved. But, probably because of mild toxicity in the plant leaves and stems, the produce also was designated “wolf peach” in Germany, consigned to its werewolves. And, there was a time in England when Brits feared the fruit, refusing to eat it. On the other hand, the red tomato has been called the “love apple,” too.
At UF’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm, part of the university’s statewide IFAS (Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences) network, they’re just calling their stand-out hybrid the “Tasti-Lee.”
Ten years in development, the Tasti-Lee also is a tomato of multiple characteristics – all of them highly desirable, points out Dr. Jay Scott, the UF professor and plant breeder who began the long, precisely detailed genetic process aimed at creating a tomato combining the best of all qualities. Tasti-Lee, the result, is what most tomato aficionados want in their fresh version – healthful, flavorful, colorful – plus what farmers value – ship-ability as freshly picked produce, without the green harvest and gassing exercise. In keeping with one of the Balm center’s primary missions – verified research and proven production to help commercial agriculture – his objective, Scott notes, was to breed a tomato that would help growers compete with the greenhouse product in the supermarket. Appealing to the consumer is the commercial grower’s primary concern and many consumers opt for greenhouse tomatoes based on color, fresh appearance and therefore a perceived superior taste. Consequently, this was a standard to be attained.
It took a decade of breaking down the genetic composition of many, many different tomatoes, mixing and matching the multiple components to obtain the desired characteristics while eliminating the undesirable, as well as planting and growing the results in the center’s trial fields to achieve the successful combination, but Tasti-Lee is a winner, according to the multiple panels who have tried it, Scott says.
The hybrid tomato has 25 percent more lycopene, a powerful antioxidant thought to boost the immune system, than any other variety. Plus, Scott ticks off, it has a more intense flavor, often described as sweeter by tasters, as well as a noticeably bright red color. Then too, the hybrid’s flesh is firm holding in good juiciness within a smooth, well shaped, tight skin – assets from the transportation perspective.
When subjected over several years to evaluation by seven different panels, each composed of 30 sharp-tongued individuals, the overwhelming report was positive, Scott says. The variety evoked high ratings, he adds, “more consistently than any I’ve seen before.” Three surveys of shoppers in three different northern cities sustained these findings.
The years of painstaking work completed, Tasti-Lee – named for both a key quality and Scott’s late mother-in-law, Lee, who was a first class tomato fan – has been released by the UF/IFAS center and now is being re-produced for mass use by a Dutch company, Bejo Seeds, Inc. Seeds for the home gardener and nurseries growing plants for commercial growers are expected to be available in early 2011.
Scott, the son of a New York plant breeder who counseled him to consider the challenges of plant science when he was looking at a career in fisheries and wildlife, says the strength of the Tasti-Lee variety is in its ability to produce a flavorful tomato in a wide range of environments. Flavor and firmness are not often found in the same tomato, he sums up, adding “Dad was right.”
Copyright 2010 Melody Jameson