Credit: Harry Klee, UF/IFAS
The Everglades tomato, also known as the wild tomato or currant tomato, is a true marvel for gardeners in the Florida Keys. What sets this tomato apart is its ability to bloom and bear fruit all year round, making it a reliable and fruitful addition to any garden. It thrives in the challenging conditions of the region, withstanding alkaline soil, brackish water, and salty winds. Furthermore, this remarkable tomato variety is resistant to common fungal diseases, such as verticillium and fusarium wilts, as well as late blight. With its resilience and productivity, the Everglades tomato is truly a wonder of nature.
A Vigorous and Adaptable Plant
Credit: Scott Peacock, C.M. Rick Tomato Genetics Resource Center, UC Davis
The Everglades tomato is an annual or biennial plant, but thanks to its self-seeding ability, you will never be without an abundance of tomatoes. As the plant matures, its sprawling stems can stretch up to 10 feet in length, creating a spectacular sight in your garden. Unlike other varieties that require trellises for support, the Everglades tomato is perfectly content rambling freely. This sun-loving plant is also drought-tolerant, but it thrives best with moderate watering and occasional application of a slow-release fertilizer. However, be prepared for smaller fruit size, measuring just over half an inch in diameter. Nevertheless, when it comes to flavor, this tomato packs a powerful punch with its intensely delicious taste, reminiscent of flavors from your grandmother’s garden.
A Journey from the Wild to Our Garden
The Everglades tomato, scientifically known as Solanum pimpinellifolium, is the closest wild relative and an ancestor of the cultivated tomatoes we enjoy today. While some believe it to be native to South Florida, evidence suggests that it originated in Northern Peru and Southern Ecuador, where it still grows in the wild. Early Native Americans and migratory birds played a crucial role in carrying the genetic material of this plant northward, eventually reaching Central America, Mexico, and finally the Florida Keys. Spanish explorers later brought the tomato seeds found in Mexico back to Europe, where further hybridization took place, leading to the diverse range of “heirloom” tomatoes we know today. Interestingly, nearly all the genetic background of our cultivated tomatoes can be traced back to these European hybrids.
In recent times, the focus of tomato hybridization has been primarily on market-driven traits such as high yield, size, shelf life, and transportability. Unfortunately, in the pursuit of these traits, the flavor and aroma of tomatoes have been compromised, as the plants are unable to produce sufficient sugars or nutrients. However, biologists, like the esteemed Harry Klee from the University of Florida, are working to restore the lost flavors of commercial tomatoes by harnessing the genetic potential of the Everglades tomato and its ancestors. Research has shown that only a small percentage, between 2 to 5 percent, of the wild tomato’s genetic material can be found in our cultivated varieties.
Cultivating the Everglades Tomato
In the Florida Keys, extreme temperatures and prevalent diseases make tomato cultivation a challenge. Traditionally, tomato plants are grown in early fall when temperatures drop below 70 degrees, a prerequisite for fruit setting. However, the Everglades tomato offers a unique advantage as it can thrive in the summertime. When transplanting your seedlings into the garden, ensure you plant them deeper than they were in their pots. This encourages the growth of adventitious roots along the stems, resulting in a healthier and more robust plant. Regular irrigation is essential to maintain soil moisture and prevent fruit cracking. Additionally, applying a layer of mulch around the plants moderates soil temperature and inhibits weed growth, but be careful not to place the mulch too close to the stems. Regular monitoring for pests and addressing them promptly is crucial to minimize stress on your plants.
The genetic traits of the Everglades tomato make it a perfect match for the climate and environmental conditions of the Florida Keys. Its ability to fight diseases, survive drought, tolerate salt winds, and adapt to various soil types truly sets it apart. For gardeners in the Keys, the Everglades tomato is undoubtedly the tomato of choice.
Banner image credit: Harry Klee, UF/IFAS
- Estabrook, Barry. “Why Is This Wild, Pea-Sized Tomato So Important?” Smithsonian Magazine. 22 July 2015. Link
- Razali, Rozaimi et al. “The Genome Sequence of the Wild Tomato Solanum pimpinellifolium Provides Insights Into Salinity Tolerance.” Frontiers in Plant Science, vol. 9, 4 Oct. 2018, doi:10.3389/fpls.2018.01402
- “Scientists develop genetic path to tastier tomatoes.” National Science Foundation. 26 Jan. 2017. Link Press release.
Written by Susie Reutling, Monroe County Master Gardener Volunteer