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Show-Me hybrid tomato drops off the market

A popular local tomato variety developed by a noted University of Missouri-Columbia horticulturist has become as scarce as hen’s teeth, and experts say it’s not likely to stage a comeback. The Show-Me hybrid made its public debut in 1977 when the parentage and description was released in an MU research bulletin written by Victor Lambeth, a plant wizard who taught for 44 years at the university and developed more than 49 varieties of tomatoes.

Lambeth, who died in January 2006, also was known for developing the Surprise, Tom Boy and Red Heart tomato varieties. But the Show-Me developed a strong regional following because it tasted good and was bred to thrive during hot and humid Mid-Missouri summers. "I get calls every spring asking, ‘Why can’t I find any of these?’ " said David Trinklein, an MU associate professor of horticulture. "I cry the same song."

Bob McConnell, owner of McConnell’s Plantland at 1601 N. Earthland Road, also was a fan of the Show-Me. "It was one of my favorite tomatoes," he said. "It had a tough skin that didn’t crack, and it had a good flavor. They tasted like a tomato and not like a cardboard box." Trinklein, who worked with Lambeth at MU, called the Show-Me a "vigorous grower" known for its good fruit quality.

McConnell, who ran out of the seeds about three years ago, said the shrinking supply of Show-Me seed boils down to a matter of economics. "It was a regionally popular tomato," he said. "The big companies worry about seeds that will sell nationwide."

The Show-Me hybrid is an F1 of Florida 1011, crossed with a Mo. 31-St-29, according to the pedigree in Lambeth’s research bulletin.

Trinklein said he needs the Florida 1011 plant, which could be a variety developed at the University of Florida, to have both parents of the Show-Me. But even with both parents, it’s a costly process to cross the plants to produce hybrid seeds.

Creating hybrid seeds takes more than placing both parents in a room, dimming the lights and putting on some soft music. It’s a laborious process that requires brushing pollen from one of the plants to the pistil of an emasculated plant using a camel hair brush, Trinklein said.

If done correctly, the process can produce dozens or hundreds of hybrid seeds in the ovary of the pollinated plant. But seeds from a hybrid plant will not germinate, Trinklein said, so cross-pollination is required for every generation. And it takes thousands of pollinated plants to make a few pounds of seeds.

McConnell said it takes a market demand of millions of seeds to make it economically attractive to seed manufacturers. "It doesn’t add up for just a regional variety," he said.

Bottom line: No seed manufacturing company has picked up production of the Show-Me hybrid.

Seeds can be saved for as many as 20 years if stored under "exacting conditions," refrigeration with no moisture. If stored in a cupboard, they last three to five years, Trinklein said.

One last-known seed source for the Show-Me variety was Morgan County Seed Co. near Barnett, but a company sales representative said last week that’s no longer true.

"The breeder quit, and nobody has taken it over," said a woman who answered the phone. "It’s gone."

Another remaining source was Earl May Seed Co. in Shenandoah, Iowa. A phone call placed to that company last week was not returned.

So, with the Show-Me tomato out of the picture, what are a gardener’s next-best substitutes?

"The Jet Star and Better Boy are excellent local tomatoes," McConnell said.

And for folks who wonder whether a tomato is fruit or vegetable, Trinklein offered this: In botanical terms, a tomato is a fruit because it comes from the ripened ovary of a flowering plant. For taxation purposes, however, the U.S. Supreme Court has declared it to be a vegetable, Trinklein said.

As for the missing tomato, he said, "I hope we’re not writing an obituary on the Show-Me."


Publication date: 5/31/2007


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