Are there REALLY so many varieties?

Donch(8A)December 14, 2013

As I look through the tomato seed catalogs, I'm always struck by how many fruit look exactly the same and wonder if most of them aren't the same variety.

I can easily see how, say, a red beefsteak type is bought at a farmstand by a Mr. Richardson who saves the seed and viola - a Richardson's Red Beefsteak is born.

Does anyone know if something like DNA tests are ever run on tomatoes to sort out identicals? I wonder if many of the big yellow/red striped types like Pineapple, Tennessee Sweets and Striped German, for example, aren't actually the same tomato.

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carolyn137(z4/5 NY)

There are about 20,000 different OP varieties known, and currently maybe a few hundreds F1 hybrids as well.

If you were an SSE member and got the annual Yearbook, I think things would be clearer to you.

I can put out 50 large pink fruited PL varieties and they all look about the same, but they aren't the same. Tastes are different, sometimes plant habit, days to first blossoms,;fruit, which of course depend on many variables can and do vary.

Same with red beefsteaks and same with gold/red bicolors of which there are a few hundred varieties.

Since OP varieties are orphans, if you will, who is going to pay to have DNA restriction snippets tested. Not them. The only incidence of DNA testing tomatoes that I know of was many years ago when some commercial farmers bought seeds for some F1 hybrids that were said to be resistant to this and that.

THey weren't and lawsuits started. B/c of those lawsuits the tomato industry dropped the word resistant and changed it to tolerant, Good, b'c I know of no variety, OP or hybrid, that is totally resistant to any tomato disease, be they foliage or systemic diseases, in all seasons and places.

What can also happen is that a family once grew a hybrid, the name was lost, and then it got renamed. Jean's Prize is an excellent example. It was named that b'c it took so many prizes at church exhibits and the like and no one in the family could remember the name of the original hybrid.

I don't think it wil be too long before DNA restriction studies come down in price, but that's not the issue b/c one needs lots of lab equipment to do such studies in a sterile envirnment. Been there, done that, but not with tomatoes.

Did I leave something out that you asked about:


    Bookmark   December 14, 2013 at 10:12PM
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seysonn(8a WA/HZ 1)

I agree, in part, with Donch and Carolyn.

Lets go back to the time of Christopher Columbus. There were no tomatoes in Russia, Germany, Italy, or a lot of places. So the Spanish brought the seeds from South America. I am sure , they did not bring hundreds of varieties.
So where did all of those THOUSANDS of varieties came from ? They also brought potatoes. But potatoes due to their growth habit do not change as readily as tomatoes.

Some changes came about by natural crossing(bees creation). Some came about by acclimation to certain climates over a couple of centuries. That is how so many so-called "FAMILY HEIRLOOMS" came about.
I think the changes in maturity and cold/heat tolerance develops by acclimation. Taste changes can occur due to soil type/chemistry after many generations.

    Bookmark   December 15, 2013 at 3:15AM
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carolyn137(z4/5 NY)

The history of tomatoes starts in the highlands of Chile and Peru, and I'm not going to go into that. But after the Spanish took fruits with them from Mexico and spread them around their trading routes in the Carribean and elsewhere and also back to Spain, that's when changes started, and what they took back were yellow tomatoes.

So yes, new ones arose by cross pollination and even more important IMO were genetic mutations.

I don't ascribe to there being acclimation of tomatoes, as a landrace, as compared with the acclimation that was seen with Ethiopian Wheat or rice,

Summary? Yes, there are thousands of OP varieties out there now, and as more and more folks get involved with breeding their own genetically stable varieties up go the numbers. And about 15 different tomato species are known as well. There are several different categories of so called heirlooms, but that's a long topic and I think the best thing to do with that is to do a search here at GW as well as doing some intensive Googling since its a huge topic.


    Bookmark   December 15, 2013 at 5:03AM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

I'm always struck by how many fruit look exactly the same and wonder if most of them aren't the same variety.

Carolyn covered it quite well and I've nothing to add to that except to say you are focused only on appearance - the way they look in pictures - and that is only 1 characteristic of DNA.

The same can be said about many other vegetables. Lots of different varieties of carrots and cabbage and broccoli and etc. "look" the same but aren't the same so why wouldn't it be true for tomatoes too?

This isn't to say there isn't some contamination of the name-game pool, some duplication, out there because of people just making up their own names. It always amazes me the number of posts we get here from folks who have no idea and could care less what the name of the tomato they are growing is much less what the characteristics of it should be. Not to mention all the "can you tell me what the name of the tomato in this picture is" posts that lead to wrong names getting slapped on the seeds saved. But that's a whole other discussion.


    Bookmark   December 15, 2013 at 10:55AM
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Thanks for all the thoughtful responses to my question. I especially like the use of the word "contamination" to describe all the names that are just made up when people don't know the original name, like getting a bicolor from your German aunt and calling it Aunt Ursula's Big German Swirly. (As far as I know, that has not yet been used - feel free)

There's no way of knowing how many of the 20,000 named varieties are exact duplications - half of them, maybe more? And in a way that's sort of the fun of tomatoes - getting to put your own brand on something.

A followup question to my original might be: How different must a tomato be to be considered a new type? If one person selects a Beefsteak for size and someone else selects for earliness, do we actually get two new varieties deserving of new names after a while?

My neighbor has two sons - one six feet tall and the other six foot five, but they're both Johnsons.

My suspicion, which cannot be easily verified, is that there are actually relatively few truly distinct varieties of tomatoes out there. I planted a Wapsipinicon Peach last year that I'm willing to bet is a Garden Peach (or Peche) seed that just somehow ended up in Iowa.

I used to grow Gardener's Delight cherries and then tried Sugar Lump. Could not tell the difference, and then saw in a new catalog that they are the same variety. Finally, a little honesty!

This summer, I think I'll start giving all the neighbors Don's Pink Wonder tomatoes and see how long it takes for the SSE folks to list them.

All good fun!

    Bookmark   December 15, 2013 at 12:05PM
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carolyn137(z4/5 NY)

All I havetime to say right now is that Totally Tomatoes keeps listing Gardener's Delight as well as Sugar Lump, and they ARE the same and have known to be the same for many years. (smile)

Carolyn, and no way are about half of the 20K or so tomato varieties are exact duplications. (double smile) That 20K also includes seeds in seedbanks in the US and elsewhere that are not available to the public except under certain cirumstances. Ones available publicaly herei nthe US are probably between 12 and 15K.

    Bookmark   December 15, 2013 at 12:44PM
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Interesting stuff and food for thought during the winter!

Carolyn, any idea how Gardener's Delight and Sugar Lump were declared to be the same variety, and by whom? This is at the heart of my original question.

Might I, for example, declare that I see no discernable difference in several big beefsteaks and therefore deem them to all be considered the same variety from now on??? (Joking of course, but...)

And no matter whether there are 20,000 or 10,000 named varieties, I still harbor the suspicion that more than half of them are actually exact duplicates. Can anyone prove that this heretical idea is wrong?

    Bookmark   December 15, 2013 at 1:29PM
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seysonn(8a WA/HZ 1)

The fact that it is claimed there are 20k tomato varieties, tell me that : (1) there are multiple names. (2) plants adapt to their environment and change (2) Mutation is also another, as mentioned by Carolyn.

Let us just look at regular (beef steak?) RED tomatoes.
What makes them different ? TASTE , SIZE.
What makes tomatoes to taste different ? ACIDITY, SWEETNESS, JUICINESS. (complexity is not defined !)
So, by mixing and varying those 3 MAIN characteristics(from low to high), how many varieties can you create ? We all know that those characteristic DO change event within just ONE variety, from this year to next, from my garden to your garden. Even the SIZE is not an stable characteristic.

I can make a bet: Select 10 well know red tomatoes of comparable size. Publish their names. And do a test(Not a blind test but with open eyes) Then ask , say 20 tomato experts try to identify them, by, look , by taste, any way they can. I personally predict that the results will be less than unanimous. I will doubt to see a 50% accuracy there.

Yes, we often see somebody is asking to identify a tomato. He/she has a picture, describes the size, taste. But the answere he gets is that: SORRY, IF YOU DO NOT HAVE A NAME TAG, IT CANNOT BE POSITIVELY IDENTIFIED.
Which is correct. And also means that there is so much homogenity out there that one cannot separate them.

    Bookmark   December 15, 2013 at 2:32PM
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dickiefickle(5B Dousman,Wi.)

Well there is plenty of renaming of the same fruit over and over . Example: Bob grows very good toms which he has no name for and shares his seed with six friends Friend one loves the toms and since it has no name he names it Ava .Another friend calls it Bobs tom .still a third calls it Backyard and the fourth guy calls it Eloise . now after a few years of growing out friend one who named it Ava says gees this crop is 4 days sooner than past years so now he renames it Improved Ava . Getting the idea ? This rename goes on all the time and is why you have so many varieties . not to mention mis marked seed which doesn't grow as expected, so gets renamed

    Bookmark   December 16, 2013 at 8:12AM
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Well, as mentioned before, as the cost of DNA testing goes down it will be possible to sort out the players. I'm betting that some of the older heirloom varieties may be going by 50 different names or more.

Sorting this out could lead to seed catalogs having entries such as "Beefsteak, AKA Crimson Cushion, Gomer's Big Red,..." (and maybe 40 other adopted names). Perhaps simpler for decision-making, but maybe not as interesting?

This is all very different from intentional and accidental crosses. Spotting one healthy and productive plant in a field of diseased dead ones of the same variety is exciting and valuable. And certainly worthy of the word "Improved" added to the variety name.

But really, I don't see the "contamination" of tomato names as any sort of big problem that needs to be fixed. I find it more amusing than anything.

BTW, my postings seem to have some unwanted clicks for ads in them??? Is there anything I can do?

    Bookmark   December 16, 2013 at 11:53AM
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carolyn137(z4/5 NY)

Having multiple names for a single variety isn't anything new at all.

If I pull out my Michgan State Bulletin of 1939 there are multiple names for almost all of the varieties that are given going back to the 20's.

Back in the late 1800's up through maybe the early 1920's there were fierce competitions between the then existing commercial breeders and those who sold seeds.

I'd have to look it up but I don't have time now, but Crimson Cushion went by maybe 15-20 different names back then b'c the competing seed companies would change the name of the original in order to indicate exclusivity.

I don't agree with what some of you are saying, relative to the situation today where multiple names are given to a single variety although I do know of some that have been renamed and I gave an example above of Jean's Prize.

BUT, usually the person using a new name will SAY that the original name had been lost.

I do think that this issue might be clearer to you if you were an SSE member and got the annual Yearbooks. No, I'm NOT suggesting becoming an SSE member, I'm just saying that if you were I think you'd see things differently.


    Bookmark   December 16, 2013 at 12:53PM
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Two people with the same exact seed can move to two different locations in the United States and save pure seed year after year. Even if both people consistently select seed from plants in their garden that are heavy yielding, eventually those varieties will become divergent from that original seed, because the genetics of individual plants will cause differing individuals to be successful in different climates. Over a matter of mere decades, this can result in visible differences in foliage, fruit, and taste. I have personally witnessed this with my Brandywine seed that I've saved for 6 years from superior plants. I grew a tray of my Brandywines alongside some commercial seed from which they originated in the exact same medium...and the seed I had saved produced larger, more vigorous seedlings. Same variety, exact same heritage...rapidly becoming something distinctly different. The power of simple selection to shape a variety into something else is remarkably fast.

    Bookmark   December 29, 2013 at 12:26AM
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carolyn137(z4/5 NY)

But what you say cannot explain the preservation of shape and color of a variety over several centuries.

We have several pre-1800 varieties as grown today that appear to be identical to what was pictured and described back then, I've grown several.

And even more so for the many many varities from the late1800's up to today.

I'm just one of many who does not agree with local adaptation as exhibited by true landraces. (smile)


    Bookmark   December 29, 2013 at 1:02PM
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ABlindHog(8a Tx Hill Country)

There is a finite number of possible varieties of tomato. That number is defined by the number of possible genetic combinations that can be made. There are 31,760 genes available to combine in tomatoes. What each one does or how they interact with one another is not yet known but given that number, 20,000 varieties does not sound at all unreasonable.

    Bookmark   December 29, 2013 at 11:12PM
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seysonn(8a WA/HZ 1)

Well, we need a new definition for the word 'VARIETY".
How much of a difference can constitute a new "Variety" ?
No two persons, even born in the same family, are identical. Are they really different varieties ? :LOL

In that sense every human being is different, and every tomato plant is a different variety, even those that originated from the same tomato fruit.

    Bookmark   December 30, 2013 at 6:40AM
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"But what you say cannot explain the preservation of shape and color of a variety over several centuries."

Sure it can. Humans are still invariably in charge of selection. If they stay in roughly the same climate, and select for conformity to what the variety is known to be, they can keep it the same. Somebody who grows something different would do one of two things. They'd either give it a new name to differentiate it from the variety it no longer resembles, or they'd call it the same name and you'd have differing strains of a variety that are not the same. (Isn't this common?)
There is genetic variation between individuals, even within the same variety, and if a person chooses to save seed from outliers, plants that exhibit the extreme of various traits be it size, color, etc. how can they preserve the uniformity and genetic diversity of a variety? Recently stabilized crosses have lots of outliers. The Big Sungold Select you sent me produced all sorts of variation in fruit size, color, and shape. Most of our heirloom varieties have crosses in their ancestry. How long do they possess the ability to occasionally throw out a plant with different sized fruit, shape, different color, or different leaf from one of the original parents? 10 years? 30 years? 50 years? 100 years? What if people save seeds from those "aberrations?" Are they still the same variety?
I live in Southern Colorado where the brutal sun will make a plastic water bottle in the garden crack like a brittle egg shell in a matter of weeks. There is no humidity here to buffer the plants from the sun's rays. My tomatoes live in alkaline soils and only had 5 inches of rain last year. My tomatoes know months of summer without any moisture coming in contact with their leaves. In the most brutal parts of July and August, my plants turn dark grey from the sun. They twist their leaves this way and that, trying to hold in moisture, trying to block the sun yet not get burned. During the 9 consecutive days we had highs over 105, I had several plants that still set fruit. All the gardening literature I've read says that's not possible. This is a place far, far from the subtropical origin of tomatoes, and I help them along, giving them the bare minimum to succeed, saving seed from those that are best equipped to cope with the heat, the sun, and the lack of moisture. Are the individuals who thrive in this harsh environment the same individuals that would thrive in upstate New York with 60 inches of rain, glorious humidity, and acidic soil? If I planted one variety, and successively selected for 50 years from plants that could set during high temps and which were productive and I didn't care about size of fruit, color, or preservation of the characteristics that defined a certain variety, are you saying the variety would still stay the same, absent of an outright mutation?

    Bookmark   December 30, 2013 at 12:25PM
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carolyn137(z4/5 NY)

The Big Sungold Select seeds, as sent to me by Reinhard Kraft, were ones not bred by him, but were sent to Manfred Hahm, who has a seed site at Reinhard's website.

Reinhard grew out just gold colored ones but it turned out the initial seeds were crossed that I sent out, not knowing that and that was confirmed by Brad Gates, who also got the same seeds from Reinhard and Brad gave percentages of the different colored ones,

So it wasn't a stable variety from the get go but Reinhard didn't know that.

Yes, I know what the Co weather can be since I spent many years in Denver teaching at the med school at Colorado and 8th and also travelled to different parts of the state when time allowed for that/

At least the humidity is low.LOL I'd fly home via Chicago and when I got off the plane in Albany,NY I could hardly breath. Sigh.

And yes, I'm saying that many varieties have stayed the same for many decades without mutation or at least s msjor mutation that would make a major change.

Subtle mutations s do happen almost all the time but for a variety to adapt to local conditions, the sum of those subtle mutations can take up to thousands of years to adapt. as iI said above with the landrace Ethiopian Wheat story. Same with corn.

If you have five plants of the same variety in a row can one see differences, yes sometimes, as in differences with internode length, leaf shape, time to blossom set, etc., but nothing that would prevent a person from Iding a plant as the variety it's supposed to be.


This post was edited by carolyn137 on Mon, Dec 30, 13 at 16:15

    Bookmark   December 30, 2013 at 3:22PM
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