Every Tomato Tells a Story

Monday, June 16, 2008

One of the wonderful things about heirloom vegetable gardening is learning the story behind the varieties you're putting and propogating in the garden. It's not "just a tomato" anymore -- nor is it "just a melon."

No, many times the stuff that goes into the planter bed has a history behind it. And most stories can be fascinating, like the story behind the Mortgage Lifter tomato. It got that name because the man who hybridized -- or invented it -- paid off his home mortgage in six years by selling starter plants for one dollar each.

There is a similar story with this tomato. It is called, simply enough, The Shriver. And it's extremely rare. And the story behind this one plant, is how new heirlooms are discovered by backyard enthusiasts every single season. The Shriver might be rare now, but in another year or two, it will be a "must have" in the garden (or so I'm told).

The discovery of this variety started as a quest a few years ago to grow tomato starter plants in honor of our movie star Governor in California. I wanted to grow tomato plants that were named after famous actors (Clint Eastwood's Rowdy Red), or famous TV shows (Taxi), or famous movies (Sophie's Choice). What I really wanted was a tomato variety with the name of "Arnold" or "Scharzenegger" or perhaps "Austrian Oak," but no such luck. My Googling came up with zero results.

However, when I googled the of California First Lady "Maria" and "Shriver" and "Tomato," a surprise popped up. It came in the form of a newspaper report from the "Sharon Herald," serving the Shenango Valley and Mercer County areas of Pennsylvania. And this 2007 report, titled "Seedlings from family's special tomatoes for sale," featured none other than the Shriver Tomato plant. And this was SOME plant.

The newspaper report featured a woman, Nancy Shriver Ridgeway, who had been growing the "family tomato" for generations. She got the seeds from this plant from her father, who, in turn, got them from his father. You know what that spells? H-E-I-R-L-O-O-M. I simply had to have this plant.

The next step was to call the reporter who wrote the story, which I did, and he put me in direct contact with none other than Nancy Ridgeway Shriver. I caught Nancy a little off-guard. How in the world, she wondered, did some California grower find out about her tomato variety in small-town Pennsylvania? I explained my passion to her, and she agreed, that I was just a little off-kilter mentally. But, more importantly, she agreed to share her Shriver Tomato seeds.

Not only did I receive seeds from Nancy, I received a little background on the Shriver in the form of a 1966 newspaper article from the Morgantown Dominion-Post in West Virginia. At some point in time, someone had written a very extensive article on the gardening habits and practices of Nancy's father, Mr. Forest O. Shriver. The article confirmed what Nancy had told me over the phone. This variety was at least 150 years old -- and possibly much older than that.

But the 1966 article revealed yet another mystery. A photo of The Shriver Tomato plant revealed the caption of "This New York Prize Winner Tomato Hasn't Reached Full Size Yet." Aha! So this tomato was originally called the New York Prize Winner? Or had this tomato won some sort of contest in New York? The article didn't specify, and I immediately enlisted some friends from around the country to check old seed catalogues, USDA records, anything, that featured a tomato by the name of New York Prize Winner.

After a few weeks, the verdict was in. Nobody could find a variety of tomato named New York Prize Winner. It may have been called that at one time. It may not. But for now, this tomato is called The Shriver, in honor of the generations of the West Virginia and Pennsylvania Shriver families who grew this tomato variety for decades and continue to nurture it today.

Not many seed outlets carry The Shriver yet. I expect that will change in a few years, because anything this old that's actually "new," is in high demand for a few years. At this point, only one commercial grower and seedsman has it, and that is Gary Ibsen of TomatoFest fame in California.


Michael Lewis said...

Thank you for posting this! I'm growing this variety for the first time this year and can't wait to see how it turns out. I got the seed as a bonus pack in my order from Tomatofest this year and I can hardly find any info on it. How did it do when you grew it?

Bill Bird said...

I had grand plans for this variety Michael. As you can tell by the blog posting? Grand plans indeed. UNFORTUNATELY, this variety was a FLOP of GIGANTIC proportions. Germination rates, as I recall, were less than 50% And the strongest plant, which I kept, failed to develop one single piece of fruit. It was such a major disappointment. The fact that you got a free seed pack with your order from TomatoFest tells me that variety ain't much in demand. It just hasn't performed well outside of its home range, which does sometimes happen with heirloom varieties. Can't tell you why, but it does sometimes happen.