Also known locally as wild tomato or currant tomato, the Everglades tomato is a wonder for gardeners in the Florida Keys. The tomato blooms and fruits all year long, is tolerant of our alkaline soil, brackish water, salt winds, and is resistant to such fungal diseases as verticillium and fusarium wilts, and late blight (Razali et al., 2018). What a plant!
Everglades tomato grows as an annual or biennial, but you will never be without tomatoes as the thin-skinned fruit will self-seed if allowed. Though shrub-like when young, the stems will eventually sprawl out up to 10 feet. A trellis is optional as the plant is happy rambling across the garden. Like most solanums, the Everglades tomato prefers full sun. It is drought tolerant, but bloom and fruit will do best with moderate watering and occasional application of a complete, slow release fertilizer. However, there is that pesky problem of fruit size; it is small at only a little over ½ inch diameter! The flavor though, pops with the intense tomato flavor you remember from your grandmother’s garden.
The Everglades tomato, Solanum pimpinellifolium, is the closest wild relative of and a progenitor of our cultivated tomatoes, Solanum lycopersicum. Considered by some to be native to South Florida, the species likely originated in Northern Peru and Southern Ecuador where it still grows wild. Hybridization of the plant occurred as the genetic material was carried north by early Native Americans and migratory birds, ending up in Central America and Mexico and ultimately in the Keys with our “Everglades tomato.” Spanish explorers carried the seed found in Mexico to Europe where it was further hybridized, becoming many of our present “heirloom” tomatoes. All our cultivated tomatoes genetic background comes from the tomatoes hybridized in Europe (Estabrook 2015).
Much of the hybridization done today is for market purposes; high yield, size, shelf life and ability to transport well. Sadly, flavor and aromatics have been lost during the process, particularly due to the demand for high yield; the plant is unable to provide “enough sugar or nutrient”. Fortunately, biologists, including University of Florida’s own Harry Klee, are finding ways to bring back flavor to our cultivated, commercial tomatoes by using our very own Everglades tomato and its forebears. Studies have shown that there is only 2 to 5 percent of the wild tomato genetic material to be found in our cultivated, domestic tomatoes.
Due to high temperatures and disease prevalence, tomato growing is typically saved for early fall in the Keys, since tomatoes need temperatures below 70 degrees to set fruit, this is partly what makes the Everglades tomato unique for summer growing. When planting your seedlings out in the garden, plant them deeper than they were in the pot, this is due to adventitious roots that will sprout along the buried stem, increasing the total root mass for a healthier plant. Maintain regular irrigation to keep the soil moist and help prevent fruit cracking. Adding mulch into the bed or container will also help moderate soil temperature and keep the area free of weeds, make sure to pull the mulch away from the stem of the plant. Be sure to scout for little critters often to minimize stress to your plants.
The genetic traits of the Everglades tomato is what makes the tomato a “winner” for our climate and environment allowing the plant to fight diseases, survive drought, tolerate salt wind and adapt to a range of soils. This is truly a tomato for the Keys!
Banner image credit: Harry Klee, UF/IFAS
Estabrook, Barry. “Why Is This Wild, Pea-Sized Tomato So Important?” Smithsonian Magazine. 22 July 2015. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/why-wild-tiny-pimp-tomato-so-important-180955911/
Razali, Rozaimi et al. “The Genome Sequence of the Wild Tomato Solanum pimpinellifolium Provides Insights Into Salinity Tolerance.” Frontiers in plant science vol. 9 1402. 4 Oct. 2018, doi:10.3389/fpls.2018.01402
“Scientists develop genetic path to tastier tomatoes.” National Science Foundation. 26 Jan. 2017. https://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=190832. Press release.
Written by Susie Reutling, Monroe County Master Gardener Volunteer