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June 2012

Rotten research on tasteless tomatoes

Tomato 'Sweet Million' - rated highly for flavor by Raymond Blanc. Image ©Sakata Inc
This week the New York Times reports a paper in the journal Science which is said to reveal why modern tomatoes have no flavor. Apparently, the mutation that plant breeders bred out in order to prevent greenback (green shoulder) also “plays an important role in producing the sugar and aromas that are the essence of a fragrant, flavorful tomato”.

Harry Klee, a tomato researcher at the University of Florida in Gainesville, who was not involved in the research, is quoted in the Times as saying that the discovery “is one piece of the puzzle about why the modern tomato stinks.”

What planet are they on? Modern tomatoes don’t “stink”. Some don't taste of much, one or two are pretty much inedible, but there are plenty of modern tomato varieties with both a high sugar content and a wonderful flavor. Why base a serious piece of research on such prejudiced judegement - apart from the fact that it makes good copy?

Tomato 'Apero', rated highl;y for sweetness and flavour by the RHS. Image ©RHSIn 2007 the Royal Horticultural Society grew forty two different cherry tomatoes. You can read their report. Twelve were recommended for gardeners and received the RHS Award of Garden Merit. The sugar level was measured in each and the flavor assessed. Let me quote a few comments on three individual varieties: ‘Apero’ (left, click to enlarge), with a Brix-test result of 9.5% average sugar content, had a “good flavour”. ‘Golden Sweet’, with a Brix-test result of 10%, had a “good flavour and texture”. ‘Rosada’ (below right, click to enlarge) had a Brix-test result of 10.5%, the highest of all, and a “good sweet flavour.” True, it would have been better if they could have given a little more detail on flavor, but still – they rated them highly. All are modern F1 Hybrids. Tomato 'Rosada', rated highly by the RHS for sweetness and flavour. Image ©RHS

‘Sweet Million’ (top, click to enlarge), another modern F1 Hybrid, bred in Japan, also has an AGM but although it has a lower Brix test result of 7.1% the good balance of sweetness and acidity creates a flavour that was praised by renowned chef Raymond Blanc in the RHS magazine The Garden. He said this gave “a good tomato experience… juicy, excellent mouth-feel’”.

In fact Raymond Blanc took part in an extensive tomato taste test reported in The Garden in 2007. A number of varieties had good flavour, many of them modern. As well as ‘Sweet Million’ Raymond Blanc also liked ‘Santa’, another F1 Hybrid bred in Japan, and the opinion on ‘Santa’ was summed up by three judges: “Clean, meaty flavour. Well-balanced acid/sugar. Juicy fleshy texture.” ‘Santa’ is probably the most widely grown supermarket cherry tomato.

Another of Raymond Blanc’s favourites in the taste test was ‘Floridity’: "This is the best so far, good texture, excellent tomato experience," he said. The collective view of all the tasters was: “Outstanding flavour. Fleshy and juicy. Perfect acid/sugar balance”. This is a British-bred F1 Hybrid plum type.

Modern tomato varieties have no flavor? Nonsense.

So. Firstly. It’s simply not true that modern tomatoes have no sweetness and no flavor. Secondly, some modern varieties taste better than others; same as potatoes, carrots, apples and other vegetables. Choosing the right variety, modern or heirloom, is crucial. Thirdly, how you grow tomatoes makes a huge difference to the way they taste. Fourthly, if the researchers kept their tomatoes in the fridge all bets are off anyway – that’s a great way to ruin the flavor.

The violet capital of the world


When a friend from near Rhinebeck, in upstate New York, mentioned that their local movie theatre was showing a documentary film about the huge violet growing industry in the area I thought: “What? ’ve got to see this.” It seemed such an odd place to be the violet growing capital of the world.

The film is Sweet Violets, written, produced and directed by Tobe Carey and it’s a fascinating look back at what was once a thriving cut flower industry – all centered on Rhinebeck and a few nearby villages.

“It has been remarked, jocularly,” said The Garden magazine in 1903, “that every second building in Rhinebeck, NY is a violet house, and that they are now beginning to build others between…. This aggregation boasts of upwards of sixty violet growing establishments… No healthier plants, finer flowers or heavier crops can be found anywhere in the world.” And then it turns out that just one company, Julius Vonder Linden, grew violets in sixty four greenhouses and that at one time there were four hundred violet houses in and around the small town Rhinebeck.

The usual size for a violet house was 24ftx200ft so that’s a lot of violets. Ten thousand flowers a week was reckoned to be an ordinary yield from one greenhouse and at peak season a quarter of a million blooms might be shipped by train from nearby Rhinecliff station to New York City in one day.

Interestingly, there seem to be divided opinions on which were the most popular varieties: ‘Marie Louise’, ‘Frye’s Fragrant’ and ‘Duchesse du Parme’ are all mentioned as the most widely grown.

The film features reminiscences by former growers and members of their families, some delightful old cards and posters featuring violets and many period photographs showing the violet houses and how the violets were grown.

Strangely, it’s left unclear why so much violet growing should be concentrated in Rhinebeck, in particular, and it’s sad to see such a thriving industry reduced, as the film shows, to one slender bed along the side of one greenhouse now filled with anemones.

But the beginning of the end came in 1926 when a very popular Broadway play, The Captive featuring Basil Rathbone and Helen Menken, used violets as symbol of lesbian love and this is association said to have set off the decline in the popularity of violets. “It just about killed the business,” says one contributor to the film. The rising cost of heating the greenhouses through the peak November to April season in a cold climate, along with changing fashions, hastened the decline.

Now most of the greenhouses are gone and there is just that one strip of violets in one greenhouse from which flowers are still picked for local sale.

In December 1901 the magazine Birds and Nature reported: “With the exception of the rose, no other plant is so widely distributed, and at the same time so universally admired, as the violet.” Sadly, not any more.

You can order copies of Sweet Violets from the Sweet Violets movie website.

Roadside natives 3: A golden milkweed

Gold-leaved form of Asclepias syriacus, Common Milkweed. Image ©GardenPhotos.comOne of our common Pennsylvania milkweeds, Asclepias syriaca, Common Milkweed, is a familiar plant along the roadsides in this area. Most of our local plants are unremarkable in the color of their flowers, elsewhere some can be quite a vivid purple, although their downy seed pods are striking. In fact my Pennsylvania wildflower book tells me that the fluffy material surrounding the seeds was used as a substitute for kapok during the Second World War and used to fill life preservers (below right, click to enlarge)!

And, I must also mention, this milkweed is a valuable host for the larval stage of the Monarch butterfly, in fact Monarch larvae feed exclusively on milkweeds. The Monarch migrates to here in Pennsylvania from Mexico each spring. And a Monarch just flew by as I sit here writing this, so the milkweeds seem to be doing their job.Asclepias fruits

Anyway, a couple of miles in the other direction from the plants featured in the last pair of posts on smilacinas and irises is a group of roadside plants of common milkweed, just by a driveway. And one them has bright yellow leaves (above, click to enlarge). I nearly ran off the road when I saw it - it is so dramatic. Milkweed is a tough old plant and a yellow-leaved form would be great to have in the garden.

So, here’s the thing: Is this a self-supporting, standalone plant that would sustain itself in the garden? Or is it attached to those two plants behind it? Does it have enough chlorophyll in its foliage to support itself - there’s definitely a hint of green in the shoot tip - or is it attached to the plants alongside and getting its nutrients from them? Or has the root just hit a patch of something nasty?

Best way to find out: Keep an eye on it through the summer, see if it stays yellow, and then, if it does, in the fall, sneak out in the dark of the night and dig it up. And plant it in the garden here to see how it does. It’s not on private property, but what do you think the response will be if I ask the state or the county government if I can dig it up? Yes: years of hassle and obfuscation. Go for it, I say.

Monarch-EchinaceaI’ll post an update in the fall, and report on the plant's continuing yellowness – or lack of it. But even if that yellow-leaved plant dies, or just turns green, when it's moved to the garden the fact that we have so many milkweeds in this area helps ensure the larvae thrive and that we get to see the adults here in the garden (left, click to enlarge)

UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE I just went and had another look. And someone has cut the top off! What a nerve! Well, more than just the top, about half the plant has been cut off and a new shoot is already starting to grow from the top leaf joint on what remains. [It's very hot and wet here, things grow quickly.] Also, the plant is noticeably greener. Driving by now, I'm not sure I'd spot it.

I should say that I was a little slow getting this picture up here so it must be two or three weeks since the picture at the top was taken. But cutting off half the plant - mystifying. This is not an area packed with expert horticulturalists and sharp-eyed propagators - far from it. In Seattle or Surrey I'd be less surprised. Anyway... I'll keep watching.

Last night's visitor

He/She has ben visiting every day for the last week or so, often in the afternoon which is unusual for raccoons which are mainly nocturnal. That bird feeder is certainly 100% squirrel-proof, but the raccoon seems to have no trouble getting at the sunflower seed. He/She was there for almost an hour early evening yesterday, and looked up and paid attention when I enquired after his/her welfare (from six feet away) and asked if there was anything else needed. Then he/she washed his/her paws in the birdbath, and climbed down from our raised deck and went hunting elsewhere.

I can understand why some people keep raccoons as pets; they're certainly extremely endearing. And when we were in New Jersey, the local raccoons and our cats would cuddle up together on the back step; they all got on just fine.

OK, I know that if they get into the attic they can be big trouble. But it's such a treat to live where they just turn up.

Not sure if he's a she or what - couldn't get that close. So: how do you sex a raccoon from a distance?




Roadside natives 2: Unexpected irises

Local wild Iris versicolor in a variety of shades. Image ©
On the way to the Smilacina/Maianthemum I wrote about last time, in an open area on the other side of the same road, is a patch of Iris versicolor. This one I have definitely spotted before, in a soggy patch (kneeboots required) about 30ft/9m from the road but easily visible.

In years past the plants seemed all pretty much the same shade, but this year they are strikingly different. Perhaps I’d become a little blasé and just not noticed how the clump had developed and changed but take a look at the picture (above, click to enlarge).

Sorry I didn’t have my boots with me and couldn’t get any closer, but I thought I’d better take a quick pic. But actually this view (click to enlarge) shows the variability better. Dark blue plus various pale and bicolored forms… This is exactly the sort of variation that leads to new varieties being introduced to gardens. Hmmm… Definitely worth a closer look. I’ll go back with boots when the rain stops.

Next time: a native with gold foliage…

Roadside natives 1: An impressive Smilacina

I’ve been driving along this road, close by our Pennsylvania home… probably every week for more than ten years. Then just the other day, right by the side of the road, I noticed this plant. Perhaps it just never flowered before although the rough grass along the road there is rarely cut.

But there it is, a fat plant with over a dozen flowering stems – Smilacina racemosa (now called Maianthemum racemosum) - feathery false lily of the valley. As you can see (above, click to enlarge), this is not a small plant that would be easily missed. It’s a big chunky perennial that makes an impressive specimen, both with its creamy June flowers and with its red berries later. It’s growing on a north-east facing bank, 3-4ft/0.9-1.2m above the roadside ditch.

A quick look at the Pennsylvania flora website reveals that there are records of Maianthemum racemosum from only two sites in our county – and they don’t include this one. So it’s a new record. Pike County, PA, is 567 square miles (1,469 km²) that’s about the size of South Yorkshire. There’s plenty of the tiny MaianthemumcanadenseM. canadense (right, click to enlarge) all over the place, but M. racemosum is far far less common.

And why were the twenty five species of Smilacina merged with the three species of Maianthemum? Well, there’s a fascinating explanation in the RHS magazine The Plantsman (December 2005) but unfortunately this is not available online. You could simply say that they are just too similar to be considered different genera, especially when you consider two genetic DNA studies published in 2000. Let’s leave it at that.

Anyway, it’s great to see this impressive clump growing in such a prominent position and to record a new site in our county.

Next time: Unexpected irises

Taking advantage of walls

Stone walls are a big feature in our little town in Northamptonshire. The local limestone is used extensively for building and with the soft mortar that often goes with it, the result is a great habitat for plants.

A year or two back I mentioned the fern growing in a wall behind the supermarket, but walking round town before I returned to the US turned up quite a few plants taking advantage of this habitat.

The mahonia growing through the low wall (above, click to enlarge) demonstrates the power of its creeping roots as it penetrates through 15in/38cm of limestone wall, and in this case the wall is built with very hard mortar. Planted in the border on the inside of the wall, it’s made it way straight through the wall and is now flourishing on the outside.AubrietaWall_JWW9731

Aubrieta (right, click to enlarge) is an old limestone wall favourite and here two seedlings have germinated together and are flowering in slightly different colours. In turn these have seeded and young plants are now becoming established in the soil at the base.

Just around the corner from the aubrieta I spotted a lovely flowering plant of white comfrey, Symphytum orientale, growing in a wall, about 5ft/1.5m above the ground. But when I returned with the camera, someone had torn it out.

AspleniumRoof_G021510Then another fern, growing just under the gutter about 15ft/4.5m above ground. Where two lengths of gutter join there’s just enough of a leak to moisten the mortar at the top of the wall and allow the maidenhair spleenwort, Asplenium trichomanes, to settle in.

Other plants I've spotted growing in walls around town include Helleborus foetidus, with the seed secreted away in the cracks by ants; wallflowers in various reds and yellows turn up in quite a few places; California poppies, Eschscholzia, in orange and cream; Campanula persicifolia, in blue and in white. Just to mention a few...

Chelsea Flower Show Plant of The Year

Digitalis Illumination Pink - Plant of The Year winner 2012. Image © RHSIt took a long time to get it off the ground, but in the three years that the Chelsea Flower Show Plant of the Year Award has been running it’s quickly established itself as a highlight of the gardening year.

Only plants which have not been seen at a flower show before are eligible for the award. The RHS Plant Committee draws up a list of twenty finalists from all those entered, then on the afternoon of Press Day at the show each one is presented to the members of the RHS specialist plant committees by the nursery or breeder who’s introducing it. There’s a vote, and the winner is declared. The news quickly runs around the world and success inspires a dramatic boost in sales, even amongst plants that don’t win.

This year’s Plant of The Year is Digitalis Illumination Pink (‘Tmdgfp001’) (above left, click to enlarge) a hybrid between the familiar biennial foxglove, D. purpurea, and a perennial, slightly woody species that until recently was called Isoplexis canariensis . It’s stunning… Created by Thompson & Morgan’s plant breeder Charles Valins, it combines the robustness and hardiness of the British native, with exquisite colouring of the Canary Islands native. And it’s sterile, so flowers for months. It’s available in Britain, and is currently being propagated for release in North America. Anemone 'Wild Swan' - Plant of The Year winner 2011

Last year’s winner was a hardy Anemone hybrid, ‘Wild Swan’ (right, click to enlarge), developed from A. rupicola by Elizabeth MacGregor at her nursery in Kirkcudbright, between Dumfries and Stranraer in south west Scotland, where it had been on trial for ten years. ‘Wild Swan’ is available in Britain, and is now being grown by Monrovia for sale in the US.

Streptocarpus 'Harlequin Blue' - Plant of The Year winner 2010. Image ©GardenPhotos.comIn 2010 the first winner was an impressive Streptocarpus from Dibleys, ‘Harlequin Blue’ (left, click to enlarge) was the first bi-colour streptocarpus with flat-faced flowers that show off the colour well. The yellow on the lower petals makes a bold contrast to the blue upper petals. ‘Harlequin Blue’ flowers prolifically on compact plants. It's available from Dibleys in Europe, no sign of a North American source yet (please correct me if I’m wrong).

So three great plants are the first three Plant of the Year winners. All are well worth growing.