Why is a Purple Tomato Better than a Big Red Tomato?

This past weekend the Chicago Botanic Garden hosted Diane Ott Whealy, co-founder of Seed Savers Exchange, and author of her recently published memoir, Gathering, who spoke about the history of the seed preservation organization she helped found.

While there was a lot of interesting ground covered, one thing she mentioned has resonated with me that I wanted to share.

Terms like “GMO,” “food security,” “food justice,” “genetic diversity,” and “monocultures” get tossed around a lot.

Diane Ott Whealy talking at Chicago Botanic Garden. Slideshow of tomatoes© Ramon Gonzalez

But do they even mean anything to the average person? Do they resonate with anyone who can go to their local supermarket and buy apples, tomatoes, and strawberries any day of the week-any month of the year? How can there be food insecurity when you can pull up to a drive-thru and order off of a dollar menu?

For those of us who are interested in helping people understand the issue of genetic diversity when it comes to food, in our gardens and our on plates, Diane offers some simple advice: Get people to walk a garden that displays this genetic diversity. Genetic diversity becomes easy to understand when people can walk through it in a garden.

I was reminded of a time a few years ago when I failed in this area. A young cousin was visiting from California a few years ago and one day I was harvesting a ‘Purple Cherokee’ tomato from the garden.

He stopped and asked me what I’d done to the tomato. Confused, I asked him what he meant. “Yeah, how did you paint it that color?” he asked. I must have been in a cranky mood because I snapped back, “It grows like this!” He walked away and I went back to harvesting tomatoes incredulous that he thought I had painted a tomato.

A few years later I was visiting family in California and on the final day when the same cousin walked into my uncle’s house with a bag of groceries for that day’s family meal, I realized that every tomato brought into the house while I was there had looked like a carbon copy of the one before it. Sure, they were the largest tomatoes I had ever laid eyes on, but they were identical in every way. Food diversity means not all tomatoes are big and red.

So, this year I’m resolving to not just grow more heirloom varieties of flowers, fruits and vegetables to blog about, but I’ll also be sticking them in the face and mouths of as many people as possible. I’ll start with my family members and work my way out from there.

You should join me. I just hope that I’m in a better mood than I was that day a couple of years ago when I was asked how I painted a ‘Purple Cherokee’ tomato.

Diane Ott Whealy at Chicago Botanic Garden. Slideshow of seed storage© Ramon Gonzalez

Showcasing genetic diversity in your home and garden is as easy as growing and utilizing heirloom plants. The preservation work done by Seed Savers Exchange is responsible for the popularity of heirloom seeds today.

You can become a member of Seed Savers Exchange or support them buy purchasing seeds from their online seed catalog.

In the 36 years that Seed Savers Exchange has been working to preserve and promote heirloom varieties they have recorded over 24 thousand seed entries. The photo above shows one of a couple of seed storage facilities the organization uses to ensure they’re good stewards of the seeds in their possession.

Browse all of our tomato content for mouth-watering tomato recipes, savvy tomato growing tips, and up-to-the minute tomato breakthroughs.

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Why is a Purple Tomato Better than a Big Red Tomato?
Diane Ott Whealy recommends taking a stroll through the garden to explain "genetic diversity."

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