Hello and welcome to Tendrils, your weekly round-up of all that is fun and fascinating in the internet flora. This week we have a Chinese New Year theme 🙂
The news has just broken that scientists have discovered a chemical genetic roadmap to improved tomato flavor. That link is to the scientific paper in the Science journal, and it’s behind a paywall. I’m including it because it’s just taken me 10 minutes of searching to find it – none of the media reports link to it or include its title – which is one of my personal bugbears. But unless you’re really into tomato science you can skip that one and get the journalistic gist. Science magazine gives you the run down in Why tomatoes got bland—and how to make them sweet again, an article that tells us what we already know – industrialised agriculture has (unintentionally) bred flavour out of tomato varieties since World War II, in preference for characteristics such as long shelf life, firmness and a better colour. Having uncovered which genes are responsible for flavour, The lead scientist says that “crossbreeding commercial tomato crops with these heirloom varieties over multiple generations, growers could, step-by-step, produce a tomato that’s large, plump, red, and disease resistant—but that also tastes pretty good. This process would likely only take a few years.”
Gardeners, of course, can take a shortcut and just grow the heirloom (heritage) varieties.
He (Dr Harry Klee) also says that “there’s no way to directly boost the sugar in commercially grown tomatoes, Klee says. That’s because agricultural economics strongly favors high-yield plants, and the higher a plant’s yield, the less sugar it can invest in each tomato.”
So you might want to bear that in mind when you’re over-watering and over-fertilising your tomato plants!
Smithsonian Magazine also runs with the story (in The Quest to Return Tomatoes to Their Full-Flavored Glory), which is interesting because it links to Dr Klee’s citizen science project, New Flavorful Tomato Cultivars For The Home Gardener. For a donation to fund the work, you can get your hands on seeds of varieties that aren’t commercially available.
Anyway… you’re probably wondering right about now what this had to do with China. Well, neither of the articles I’ve linked to so far mentions it, but they have China to thank for some of the money for “the study, close to half which was funded by Chinese government grants” according to a report from the Wall Street Journal: How Chinese Science Could Lead to a Tastier Tomato. The institutions the paper’s authors are linked to are hidden behind the paywall, but certainly one of the ‘corresponding authors’ has an email address at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, so Chinese researchers worked on this, too.
Closing date for this one is 29th January, so be quick!
When you think of cuisines that involve a lot of tomatoes, you don’t generally think of Chinese food. Tomatoes didn’t find acceptance in China in the same way that (e.g.) chilli peppers and sweet potatoes did, but were introduced to China over 100 years ago. In their poetically xenophobic way, the Chinese named them the Western red persimmon or the foreign eggplant. Apparently they most often feature in Chinese meals simply sliced and drenched in sugar, but there are recipes for a beef and tomato stir-fry and a couple of other dishes. The watery nature of tomatoes doesn’t really lend itself to stir-fry cooking. Chinese consumers eat their tomatoes fresh, and flavour is a big concern.
So it may come as a surprise to discover that China is the no. 1 tomato grower in the world, having converted the western highlands to tomato production. It’s for processed tomatoes – pizza sauce and ketchup. Although China’s junk food appetite is increasing, it’s mainly produced for the export market.
Enough about tomatoes, let’s move onto narcissi – a scented Mediterranean flower that ended up bewitching the Far East. In China this flower has become associated with grace, purity, happiness and good fortune, and there are special horticultural techniques to make sure they’re in bloom for the lunar new year.
The Fire Rooster strutting his stuff in front of 2015’s Sheep – obviously still exhausted from the experience
And from there we’ll go on to vegetables that have a tenuous connection to the Chinese new year – we are now entering the year of the Rooster (the Fire Rooster, to be more specific). There are Rooster potatoes, which are quite widely available and, apparently, have been ‘seen on TV’. Sea Spring Seeds have Chilli ‘Rooster Spur’, which produces short, bushy plants that yield thousands of very small, very hot red fruit. It seems like that should fit in nicely with the Chinese love for all things red, and that its prolific cropping would bring prosperity, but I am clearly not an expert in Chinese customs.
In Australia you will find Borlotti bean ‘Red Rooster’, a bush bean that produces red-speckled pods containing red-speckled beans.
Or you could decide to grow Oriental vegetables this year, particularly after midsummer when they are less prone to bolting or try your hand at chickpeas.
Whether you’re adding an oriental note to your garden, cooking up a Chinese feast or just splashing out on a takeway this weekend, gong hei fat choy everybody! See you back here for Tendrils next week.