Heirloom tomatoes have long made their place in the home vegetable garden. These tomato varieties from yesteryear have been passed down by generations of dedicated seed savers, both surviving and preserving our agricultural heritage.
Sometimes, however, local heirloom varieties of tomatoes — and many other types of fruits and vegetables — are lost. One variety thought to have vanished was the 'Talent' tomato.
In began in 1958 when Oregon State University plant breeder Tex Frasier sent a few trial tomato seeds to the Hanley Farm Research Station, where OSU Extension agronomist John Youngen germinated the seeds for planting.
He grew the seedlings and selected the best performers for further propagation. The seeds were an unnamed variety, a cross between a Campbell Soup variety and an Oxheart type. The Campbell variety provided genes for great shape and texture while the Oxheart brought increased fruit size to the mix.
This combination proved a good match, and the best performers of the group were grown as a seed crop. Within a few years, the seeds were distributed to local farmers. Called 'Medford,' this new OSU variety produced a medium-large tomato with great taste, a strong, late harvest and resistance to fruit-crack.
Ace was another popular variety grown in the Rogue Valley at the time, but sometimes the crop would go bust when late summer rains would crack the tomatoes and render them unsalable. The introduction of 'Medford' helped solve this problem.
Commercial demand for local tomatoes came from the Bagley Canning Company, a cannery in Ashland that purchased tomatoes from area farmers. Soon the 'Medford' tomato became quite popular as a local, commercial variety.
One summer day in the early 1960s, Clarence Holdridge, a Bagley Cannery fieldman, was inspecting a crop of 'Medford' tomatoes when he noticed one tomato plant among the group that seemed to stand out from the rest. It was a bit more vigorous with larger fruit.
The seed from that plant was saved, and the offspring, which bred true to form, became known as the 'Talent' tomato. The popularity of this new tomato grew rapidly among local growers looking for increased yields. The rise of the 'Talent' tomato was a short one, however, because the cannery shut down not long afterward. With no place to sell their crop, tomato growers moved on to others.
The Southern Oregon Research Station continued to propagate and distribute 'Medford' tomato seed because it was an OSU release. But the 'Talent' tomato was forgotten, and over time it became just a memory to a select few.
I was cleaning my desk last spring when a lower drawer seemed a bit jammed. When I pulled it out from the desk, I discovered a faded envelope lodged beneath the drawer. On the outside was written: "Dave, here's the Talent tomato seed I was telling you about. Good luck, Shorty 1992."
Suddenly the fog began to clear, and I remembered a conversation with a guy about 'Talent' tomatoes who gave me some seeds to try. I also remembered my frustration looking for those seeds and finally just accepting that, most likely, I had accidentally thrown them away.
But here they were: 40-plus shriveled-up tomato seeds that had been stored in a paper envelope at 70 degrees in the bottom of my desk for 18 years.
What the heck, I decided to see whether any were still viable.
Five days in a warm and moist seed bed was all it took to bring a few to life. About 60 percent germinated, and I transplanted them into individual pots where they grew quite nicely. They were ultimately raised in a greenhouse in 1-gallon pots until it was time to plant them in the soil. The best of the bunch — six plants — were chosen as seed crop, the rest given away to gardening friends.
The six plants were grown in the test gardens at Greenleaf Industries in Grants Pass, and they performed rather well for an open-pollinated tomato variety. Individual plants averaged 24 pounds of fruit with each fruit weighing just over a half-pound. They had good taste, nice color and attractive shape. The fruit was meaty, which was the reason it was grown as a processing tomato. It was a good canner.
Production probably could have been better, but 2010 wasn't a good tomato year in Southern Oregon. The season started later due to cool May weather.
Greenleaf nursery manager Nick Smith saved seeds in the fall of 2010 and indicated he will have Talent tomato plants available this spring at the nursery. A nice rediscovery.
Special thanks to Extension horticulturist David Sugar and retired Extension agent John McLoughlin for helping me uncover some of the history of the Talent tomato.
David James has been writing gardening stories in Southern Oregon for 35 years. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.