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May 08, 2008

Renaissance Man: Galapagos Tomatoes

Tomatoes at the Chelsea Physic Garden


Conde Nast Traveler stuntman Mark Schatzker is on a mad quest to make himself into a modern-day Da Vinci during a month's stay in Europe. Last week, Mark "mastered" golf in Scotland.  His next task: gardening in England.

A curious thing happened while I was transplanting my cannabis yesterday. I was standing in the potting shed, packing a clay pot full of soil when a woman entered the room looking for someone. We got to talking. The woman was a scientist with the Natural History Museum and University College London, and she had undertaken a research project in conjunction with the Chelsea Physic Garden on Galapagos tomatoes.

As it turns out, there are two species of tomato endemic to the Galapagos. That means they don't natively grow anywhere but the Galapagos Islands, and that has a lot to do with the fact that the seeds germinate after being passed through the digestive tract of a Galapagos giant tortoise. Despite their somewhat unappetizing beginnings in life, chances are that you have eaten both of these tomatoes at some point in your life. You just haven't eaten a tomato that was 100 percent Galapagos.

The germ plasms of both tomatoes varieties have made their way into the commercial hybrids that are stacked into pyramids on supermarket shelves. The first is called Solanum galapagense. It's a hairy, dome-shaped plant that smells of lime and produces a bright orange fruit with an intensely tart flavor. The second is called Solanum cheesmanii. Don't bother asking for either by name the next time you're shopping for the ingredients to a BLT.

Bloody Mary
Evolved tomato.

Most tomatoes have a little elbow right above where the stem connects to the fruit. When you buy a bunch of hot house tomatoes on the vine, and find there's a twig sticking out of the top of your tomato after you've plucked it off, it exists courtesy of that elbow. Solanum cheesmanii is different. It has no elbow. If you pull a Solanum cheesmanii off the vine, you are left grasping a bare tomato. Thanks to Solanum cheesmanii, tomato breeders have been able to create varieties with no twig problem, meaning tomatoes can be harvested in the millions by machine and turned into things like juice or ketchup. Something to think about the next time you order a bloody mary.

Later on, I bumped into the garden's curator and told her about my conversation with the woman studying Galapagos tomatoes. As it turns out, this woman's great, great grandfather also visited the Galapagos Islands to study the wildlife. He even wrote about it in a book called The Origin of the Species. The woman's name, I discovered long after she'd left, is Sarah Darwin.

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Too bad you didn't know she was a Darwin when you were talking to her, I would really like to know if Ketchup evolved from Tomatoes or if it was "created".

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