Tuesday, October 6, 2009

What Does A Tomato Know About Life?

Pondering my next blog a few days ago, I got to thinking about the balcony gardeners in Paris. To understand why I noticed them, you have to know that long-ago, they passed a law in the inner arrondissements of Paris that no building can be more than four or so stories high, thus preserving the authentic character of the city. Every single flat in Paris seems to have a balcony. So, flying by on the elevated portions of the metro, even in April, you see the pots sitting in the sun on the balconies of the flats -- the herbs, a few vines, the tomatoes -- straining toward the feeble spring sunshine.

Which brought me to yesterday's question. Tomatoes know quite a lot, as it turns out. At least the particular tomato plant that inspired that question does. I found myself diligently covering that intelligent tomato plant as our first heavy frost approached.

It had a less than illustrious start.

Last spring I bought exactly two tomato plants; a regular America hybrid, and a second, decidedly sentimental choice. It was called a Black from Tula and the label said it was a Russian heirloom. I had no idea what that was, but I'm a sucker for things Russian because my daughter was born there and I seem to have given my grown son back to Russia. So I planted them side by side in my herb garden.

The hybrid went right to work, growing straight up to a 20 inch by 20 inch dimension, blossoming out in June and producing about ten bright red, standard-looking, not necessarily stellar tomatoes. That was it and it was done.

The Russian heirloom, on the other hand acted like no tomato plant I have ever seen. It began to grow. And grow. And grow! June came and while not a single blossom had appeared, it went on growing, it's branches sprawled across the entire four by eight foot herb garden. It overran the oregano, buried the basil and lavished love on the lavender. The spreading greenery arched against the house, climbed the six-foot cedar fence and leaned over the support structure around the puny hybrid. “Look at this!” I announced one evening, Hands on my hips in disgust, as my son walked in the garden gate. “It's sprawling all over the place and not giving me anything – enough of this Russian stuff!”

“Give it time,”
he laughed. “Russians know their tomatoes...it will come through!”

I shook my head. Then in July, blossoms appeared. Hundreds of them. By August tomatoes were taking shape, everywhere, on every sprawling branch. I got a little busy with wedding preparations and travel and forgot to look in on it. September arrived, and when I checked, was amazed to see the first few dark brownish tomatoes, I thought “Darn! I waited too long and let them spoil!” So I ignored them.

The next week I spotted a few more, equally dark, and reached to pull them off to give them to the birds. They weren't mushy, they were firm! I plucked one and smelled it. The most heavenly scent wafted up my nose. I searched beneath the tomato forest and found the plant tag. “Black from Tula. Russian Heirloom. Dark reddish-brown. Sweet rich fruit, prodigious producer ideal for short growing seasons.”

That night I tasted probably the best tomato I've ever had. And there were at least 150 more like it burying the herb plot!

Back to what a tomato knows. First, an heirloom tomato is closer to its past and hasn't had the life bred out of it. It hasn't forgotten that tomatoes are really a fruit, not a vegetable, so it stayed sweet. This particular species put down deep roots, while spreading those enormous branches. How else could it hold up those branches and get ready to provide the nutrients for its bumper crop?

Even better, it didn't let itself be rushed or pushed into becoming something it is not. It kept its identity and its promise, producing a dark tomato whose color is so much better suited to absorb what light comes its way and to hold on to the warmth of the day to meet night's cool darkness. Reaching for that light, this Russian heirloom produced so much more than I expected; firm, sweet life in abundance.

Whether you're a fan of salt or sugar on your tomatoes, this tomato's job is to give flavor to the world and it does it in spades! I underestimated this plant. I got angry when it just seemed to be using and not giving back anything. But it was just preparing to produce an astounding bounty of goodness. Are you like this tomato? I hope I am.

Salt. Light. Life. Amen!

©2009 Jan Johnson Wondra

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