Once Upon A Tomato


Tomato Seeds

If seeds could talk, I wonder what tales they would tell.

I’m sure they would recite their perfect equation of soil, light, and water for their optimum germination. They wouldn’t even wait for us to ask. They would just offer that info up at the start of the conversation. Seeds are funny that way.

I wonder, though, if they would be willing to share with us their story? That perhaps their great-great-great-great grandfather hitched a ride on Paul Revere’s coat on his famous midnight ride? Or that they, in fact, escaped from a research lab looking to build a better seed?

Recently, I considered these questions when my snowbird neighbor handed me a small plastic baggie, the kind that zips closed. He and his wife had recently returned to South Florida to escape winter in Pennsylvania. He’s also a gardener, often loading up his car at the end of his stay with rooted tropicals for his northern garden.

“I was thinking of starting my tomato seeds down here,” he said, “to get a head start. I thought you might like some.”

Inside the baggie were two carefully folded pieces of paper towel, each labeled in red letters: “Ox” and “Jap.” My neighbor saw my eyebrows arch at the slur.

Tomato Seeds

“Oh, geez,” he said. “I just didn’t know what to call them — but they’re the best tomatoes you’ll ever eat. I’ve been growing them for years.”

When he said years, he actually meant decades.

In the closing days of World War II, two American soldiers stationed on opposite sides of the world each tasted what he thought to be the best tomato. They saved the seeds and after the war, returned to the States to restart civilian life. The seeds were planted in each man’s backyard vegetable garden.

Over time, tomatoes and seeds were shared and during the ‘70s “Ox” entered my neighbor’s garden. “Jap” arrived in the early ‘80s.

I have since learned that “Ox” is actually my neighbor’s shorthand for Oxheart, an heirloom tomato with many varieties. The seeds that have been handed down are the descendants of that German tomato.

Oxheart (left) and Japanese (right).

Oxheart (left) and Japanese (right).

The other tomato plant is a bit more difficult to identify. The tomato was first tasted in Japan — and all I can tell from the newly sprouted seedlings is that the leaves look nothing like the finely cut leaves of a traditional tomato plant.

Time, I hope, will tell.

For me, though, it’s the story. As my neighbor told the tale, I imagined the journey the seeds — or rather their ancestors — had taken: from war-scarred battlefields to American suburbia, from feeding German and Japanese families to taking center stage at July 4 barbecues.

I know many of us have plants and seeds with a story to tell. Perhaps it’s your great aunt’s African violet that you’ve nursed along or a rooted souvenir from an amazing vacation.  For me, it’s the bleeding heart vine that my now deceased grandfather rooted from a plant I had sent him for Christmas.  When I share my own rooted clippings form the plant he gave me, I make sure to always tell the story.

Bleeding Heart Vine, a plant and story that keeps on giving.

Bleeding Heart Vine, a plant and story that keeps on giving.

It’s almost as if the story makes the seed/plant more beautiful, more special, more — just more.  The tale is the tapestry of the plant and of us, of who we were and from where we came.  As gardeners, I think we have a duty to not only instruct on the care of plants, to not only share plants, but to make seeds and plants and gardening more real and more human.

Maybe it’s a good thing that seeds can’t talk — that way we can do all the talking for them.

19 thoughts on “Once Upon A Tomato

  1. Kevin, I LOVE this post. I relish your voice and your stories whenever I hear them, and the part you’re playing in the lives of so many gardeners is a rich one. Thanks!

  2. This is so important and I thank you for reminding me of it! I think because of the drought I’ve lost a little of my gardening enthusiasm. I have a variety of plants and bulbs in my garden that come from my grandmother and my mother-in-law and maybe thinking about how much those plants mean to me will help get me out of my malaise! Thank you, Kevin.

    • Hi Debra. I’m sure the drought has robbed you of many of your plants and has added an odd twist to gardening. Hopefully, you will find the inspiration to keep those treasured family heirloom plants going so you can share clippings with your children and grandchildren. Be well! By the way, too bad they can’t harvest the snow from the northeast and ship it to the west coast for melting and use.

  3. I love sharing seeds and plants with people! I have many “pass along” plants given to me from friends and family that I treasure deeply. Let us know what you think of the tomatoes. They must be good to have been saved all these years.

    • Hi Brenda. I can’t wait to try them. When I Googled Oxheart, it’s a tomato that I’ve never seen for sale — and all of the descriptions use words like “best” and “most delicious.” You’ll all be the first to know!

  4. Kevin, I’m so curious to see how the plants mature and hopefully see the fruit they bear. But come to think of it, they have already bore some fruit in the form of the stories they’ve helped create. Keep gardening. I’m shivering here in Indianapolis!

    • Hey Mario. When the tomatoes arrive, I’ll let you know. Now, as for that shivering — warmth is but a plane ride away. I hope you can make an escape before the glaciers slide southward. 🙂

  5. Wow, what great stories behind the seeds! I love reading some of the stories behind the seeds in different heirloom magazines. How great that generations of families have kept and shared something like this!

  6. What a special story! When a seed or cutting has a story like that, you treasure it even more. I too am curious too see the final product, so please be sure to show us!

    • Hi Sarah. I know I’m not supposed to wish time away, but the build up for these tomatoes certainly has me anticipating the final product. I’ll let you know!

  7. Pingback: A Tale Of Two Tomatoes | Nitty Gritty Dirt Man

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