Wild ‘Everglades’ tomato is ideal for South Florida gardens



As published in the Miami Herald, 1/11/14

I cannot seem to grow a tomato to save my life. After purchasing some heirloom tomato seeds in fall 2013, I carefully sowed them in individual pots and placed them where they should be, receiving warm, morning light, sheltered from the extreme heat of midday.

They did germinate, but most got no taller than about two inches. Two plants are currently about 12 inches tall, in my raised bed, but are a long way from fruiting. I can only imagine that the soil I used for the seedlings was too dense and compacted. What else could the problem have been? Well, I would like my raised bed to get more sun this time of year. Other growers have had some issues with veggies this season, issues they attribute to our extra-wet fall. It seems we can’t win.

Or can we? At Fairchild’s last Ramble Garden Festival, my co-worker purchased an interesting plant from a vendor. She said it was called “Everglades tomato,” and could grow in South Florida without concern. Summer deluge? Scorching sun? No problem for this plant, apparently. So naturally I bought one too.

A few local gardeners I spoke to referred to it as “wild tomato.” Some claimed it is native to our area. Online stories about it ranged wildly, from its having “escaped” into the Everglades and naturalizing to that environment, to my favorite, quixotic idea that early Spanish explorers took the wild tomato with them from its home in Peru, Chile, and/or Ecuador, dropping its seeds onshore as they sailed back through the Caribbean and past Florida. There’s not much to prove that, but it’s pleasant to ponder nevertheless.

Tiny fruit: The maximum size of the Everglades tomato is about a half inch. Kenneth Setzer/FTBG.

The plant is pretty ragged-looking and sprawling, even for a tomato, but no one grows tomatoes as ornamentals. Some South Florida gardeners say it grows with little to no tending, and produces fruit at any time of year, while most tomatoes require cool nighttime temperatures to set fruit. And it will apparently drop fruit, seed and grow, replacing itself in the process, as well as being distributed by birds that eat the fruit.

This seems just too good to be true. The one drawback I can ascertain: the tomatoes are diminutive, about the size of a dime and usually smaller. But while the fruit is small, the taste is tremendous. They taste very richly of heirloom tomatoes, really sweet, without any recollection of the insipid cardboard tomatoes sold in supermarkets.

Little bloom: The Everglades tomato's flower. Kenneth Setzer/FTBG.

This tomato is called a currant tomato, technically Solanum pimpinellifolium. You can see it is in the same genus as the common tomato, Solanum lycopersicum, with which it may hybridize if grown too closely together (tomatoes by the way are related to both potatoes and belladona, the deadly nightshade).

The currant tomato is indeterminate, and can grow to 12 feet or more, so a support or trellis is necessary — it might make for an interesting and edible fence covering.

Most of the time, when transferring a plant to another pot or the ground, you want to dig a hole only as deep as the plant was to begin with. However, with tomatoes, growers recommend burying tomatoes a few inches deeper each time they are transplanted to encourage growth of more and deeper roots. This also helps create a more stable plant.

Full sun this time of year is ideal; supposedly full sun is fine all year round, though I still can’t imagine a tomato surviving a South Florida summer. A timed-release fertilizer should be fine, though I prefer fish emulsion and compost (I am a tree hugger).

Don’t expect to see Everglades tomatoes in stores any time soon — their very thin skin and tender texture mean they don’t keep well once picked. But that’s just as well; you’ll need to grow it for yourself and eat it right off the vine.