Talking Tomatoes

Community contributed by Glenn I. Teves, County Extension Agent

One of my favorite vegetables or fruits, depending on how you eat ‘em, is the lowly tomato. Tomato sandwich, lomi salmon, or just tomato, onion, sardines, and poi, tomatoes are hot stuff. First thought to be poisonous when first introduced into Europe, it took some promoting to get people to try them. Today, it’s the no. 2 most consumed vegetable behind its cousin, the Irish potato. Growing them can be a challenge, but as a local song goes, “It’s fun when you know how it’s done.”

Native from Mexico to Chile, many are very small. There are two main plant types: indeterminate or trellis types, and determinate or bush types. Indeterminates are usually grown in greenhouses on trellises where its side shoots are plucked and one main leader is kept.  Plants can reach over 20 feet tall and produce tons of large, juicy tomatoes in a fairly small area. Determinate types are usually field grown as bushes, with some varieties such as processing and roma tomatoes having concentrated fruiting which facilitates mechanical harvesting.

Through conventional breeding methods, tomatoes can be customized to weather all kinds of diseases. The late UH tomato breeder Jim Gilbert developed varieties with resistance to over 12 different diseases, including root-knot nematodes, tobacco mosaic virus (spread by smoking cigarettes with virus-infected tobacco), Fusarium wilt, Verticillium wilt, Bacterial wilt, Southern blight, Alternaria stem canker, and others, all in one tomato. Through a chance meeting in a hallway, I had the fortunate opportunity to work with him in his last two years before retirement. My job was to taste 93 tomato breeding lines to find the best tasting ones. After the first day of work, I was also ready to retire with a stomach ache and acid indigestion until he told me, “Just taste it and spit it out; don’t swallow it!” The job got better after that, and together we were able to find the best tasting, disease-resistant varieties.

It used to be that tomatoes came in two sizes, cherry tomatoes the size of a quarter and giant beefsteak types. Today, we have what one Israeli seed company calls ‘boutique tomatoes’ customized for everyone’s needs, from micro-tomatoes the size of your fingernail to the giant beefsteaks and heirlooms, and everything in between. Very popular today are the grape tomatoes that resemble a miniature roma tomato and weigh about 16-20 grams. They’re pricey and can sell for $6 to $10 a pound, but can be stretched to create many salad meals. A size up are the cherries which weigh from 20-30 grams, and up from there are the midi tomato, also called romas that can run up to 100 grams. The roma-dettes, a new class is somewhere in weight between the cherries and the romas. The large beefsteak types can range from 200 to more than 800 grams. Aside from red, tomatoes come in many colors including white, pink, orange, yellow, green, striped, black, and even ones that stay green.

There are so many varieties to choose from, it’s hard to recommend which varieties to grow on Molokai. For the grape types, it’s gotten global with everyone jumping into the picture including Taiwanese, Israelis, Japanese, Europeans, and Americans.  The All-American field trials help to identify new varieties which are a marked improvement over what’s available on the market. Grape types include All-America winners Juliet and Sugary from Taiwan, while the Japanese just won an award for a strawberry shaped tomato called Tomatoberry. Tomatoes are a gourmet item in Japan, where provinces pride themselves with growing the best tomatoes. For the full size tomato, one my favorites is Celebrity, an All-American Award winner with multiple disease resistance inherited from one of its Hawaiian grandparents, Anahu. Next time, we’ll cover some of the intricacies the growing of tomatoes.


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