Why are so many tomato varieties and cultivars from Russia?
August 8, 2017 7:20 PM   Subscribe

It seems like 75%+ of tomato plants from my local nurseries are from Russia. I'm growing 5 right now. What's the history of this?

This may be Pacific NW specific.
posted by k8t to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Off the top of my head; we are a marginal tomato-growing climate but in the same nation as some great ones. The USSR mostly had bad tomato-growing climates. They funded tomato breeding labs; we have the interstates.

During glasnost, several PNW seed and orchard groups or companies visited the USSR and bought or traded germplasm; this only got stronger as Russia switched from expecting science institutes to have commercial applications through selling off everything.
posted by clew at 8:07 PM on August 8, 2017 [4 favorites]

Oh and! duh! The USSR was especially working on tomatoes that could tolerate cool springs and cool snaps while growing. Useful for the PNW most years.
posted by clew at 8:09 PM on August 8, 2017 [4 favorites]

I think Clew has just answered the "why now" part.

As far as the "why Russia", you have to go back at least to Nikolai Vavilov, the great botanist, geneticist, and explorer. It doesn't go into detail in that cited article, but Vavilov himself went on at least one Mexican expedition, paying close attention to corn and various other Central American crops. A lot of genetic diversity came from that trip alone, and [citation missing] of course, but I would be surprised if the process of breeding tomatoes to survive the brief, intense growing season in the North did not result in some vivid varietals.

(apparently there's also some amazing Polish varieties. Eastern Europeans like their maters)
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 8:27 PM on August 8, 2017 [8 favorites]

Yeah, cool-weather tomatoes are mostly a Russian development, though I had not ever noticed the actual seedlings were coming from Russia in my nurseries.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:36 PM on August 8, 2017

I did not know about Vavilov!

I remember occasional photo spreads in the seed and nursery catalogs over the last decades, of a visit to a research station in Russia or Eastern Europe, with everyone sitting formally behind a table and the specimen fruit set out on characteristic plates and doilies. But the catalogs aren't online and they're sure ephemeral on paper, thick as the leaves of Valembrossa.
posted by clew at 9:05 PM on August 8, 2017

More yummies!
posted by k8t at 9:09 PM on August 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

More history. Apparently there are seed saving organizations!
posted by k8t at 9:13 PM on August 8, 2017

Vavilov's death was tragic!
posted by k8t at 9:16 PM on August 8, 2017 [4 favorites]

Well, I'm growing a traditional Russian tomato (Silvery Fir Tree) for the second year in a row because it has one of the shortest times from transplant to fruit (60 days) of anything in the Seed Savers catalog, and it's a determinate variety but doesn't all ripen at the same time. All of those traits are useful in our variable, short, hail-threatened growing season here in Colorado.
posted by deludingmyself at 9:38 PM on August 8, 2017 [3 favorites]



and then the people who preserved the seedbank while literally starving to death

... ... ...

On a more cheerful note, one of the most delicious and quick-ripening Russian heirlooms, a color common to them that's called 'black', is named Paul Robeson. I have been told that it's a cross of Black Prince and Orange Jazz, but I think that was a made-up irresistible story.
posted by clew at 9:41 PM on August 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

I just speed read this book about him. Great read.
posted by k8t at 10:34 PM on August 8, 2017

(We grow Paul Robesons, alongside Cosmonaut Volkovs, in Communist solidarity. They are truly delicious, and better than the Volkovs which are serviceable but nothing special. If nothing else, the Russians gave their varieties the best names.)
posted by soren_lorensen at 5:50 AM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Wow! This is a very cool thread. Just chiming in to say that I'm in a warmer climate and have never seen any Russian tomatoes. I have had extremely good luck with a Czech variety (stupice) though.
posted by karbonokapi at 10:34 AM on August 9, 2017

Do your tomato enthusiasts find, say, Central American varieties, karbonokapi?
posted by clew at 11:17 AM on August 9, 2017

I haven't noticed any, Clew. It's hard to tell where exactly they are from in most cases, though. I just tried looking up some of the cultivars I see often, and one turned out to be French, a couple Italian, and the rest American or of unknown "heirloom" provenance
posted by karbonokapi at 2:21 PM on August 10, 2017

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