The Taste of Success for UF Tomato Breeders

Article written by UF/IFAS Extension Highlands County Horticulture Extension Agent: David Austin

I hear it often, “The tomatoes in Florida don’t taste like the ones up north” and “Those grocery store tomatoes don’t have any flavor”. My Mother once exclaimed that a new variety of blueberry that was just released did not have any flavor. The fruit was the earliest in the industry, it needed a low number of chill hours, it had a tough enough skin to handle picking and its shelf life was better. It was the latest and the greatest from the plant breeders, but it had no flavor.  When hybridizing plants for consumption, flavor had taken a back seat, until now. University of Florida professor Dr. Harry Klee has been working to change the stigma behind what some people claim as bland tasting hybrid tomatoes.

Why hybridize tomatoes in the first place when the heirlooms of old are plentiful with flavor? The answer lies in what is known as hybrid vigor. By breeding tomatoes and coming up with hybrids, traits like disease resistance, increased production, longer shelf life and durability can be bred into the tomato.  Hybridized through traditional breeding, these varieties cannot be grown from their own seeds like heirlooms because the genetics will change the next generation. The fruit, as they are, retain the good traits but any seedling grown from them would yield a different tomato with different traits than the parent plants. Growers need this durability and hybrid vigor to assure that the crop they are growing will do well on its trip from seed to the supermarket shelf.

Garden Gem Tomatoes

Around five years ago, the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Science introduced Tasti-Lee as a better tasting and more nutritious tomato, which has the rich red color that tomato connoisseurs look for. Its developer, Dr. John (Jay) Scott, like Dr. Klee, wanted to breed a tomato that stood up to the taste test. Its success inspired Dr. Klee to carry this mission on and create new and tastier varieties.   The results of his plant breeding have yielded three new varieties that should soon be in wide production. Garden Gem, which is a 2-2.5 ounce elongated fruit that will produce over a 6 week period and is ready in about 65 days.

Garden Treasure Tomato

Garden Treasure which is a large round 8 ounce fruit that starts ripening at 70 days and continues to fruit as long as the plant stays healthy. The last variety is so new that they just call it “New” Hybrid. It has a 6 ounce fruit and ripens in about 70 days.

“New” Hybrid is determinate which means most of the fruit ripens in a short period. Determinate tomatoes are the perfect choice for commercial growers and those gardeners that are looking for a tomato for canning.  Indeterminate tomatoes, like Garden Treasure, will produce on new growth as long as the plant grows and stays healthy and the night temperatures stay below 70 degrees.

The Highlands County Master Gardeners have acquired a limited amount of seeds from each of these varieties and are presently growing them for their November 18th plant Sale at the Bert J. Harris, Jr. Agricultural Center in Sebring. For more information contact me at davidaustin@ufl.edu , call us at (863) 402-6540, or join us on the Highlands County Master Gardener Facebook group.

Have a plant problem, a bug to ID, or any other horticulture related problem? Contact your local Master Gardener help desk.