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30 years of Russian influence … on our tomatoes

Gardening
Tomatoes-Stock-Art
How Russian tomatoes got into our diets is a tale of intrigue and smuggling. Adobe Stock

Two years before the fall of the USSR, seedsman Bill McDorman — then age 35 and owner of Garden City Seeds of Missoula, Mont. — traveled deep into Soviet Siberia searching for new types of tomatoes unknown in the West. Thirty years later, Russian varietals sourced by McDorman and other American seed explorers command a healthy share of the heirloom tomato market — a national trend also reflected in Massachusetts.

“Russian heirlooms are becoming more popular,’’ said Tracie Ward, selector of vegetables and poinsettias at Russell’s Garden Center in Wayland.

Ward, who has been at Russell’s for more than 30 years, is a close observer of the changing appetites of the gardening public. She likens the gardening business to the fashion industry. Vegetables, too, endure trends and whims. Every year, Ward sells more than 100 tomato types; currently, about 5 percent are of Russian origin.

Surprisingly, American interest in Russian tomatoes dates to at least the early 1980s. In July 1981, Ron Driskill, a horticulture teacher and columnist for the Calgary Herald in Alberta, Canada, broke the unusual story of a Siberian visitor smuggling 10 tomato seeds out of the USSR. Driskill’s enthusiastic article — “Siberia tomatoes beat all others’’ — helped launch ‘Siberia,’ a cold-resistant tomato whose seeds Driskill was soon selling for $2 a pack through his business, Siberia Seeds.

The popularity of the tomato among American garden writers in part inspired seedsman Bill McDorman’s trip to Siberia in 1989.

“I went on the idea that if I could find one tomato from Siberia, it would be worth the whole trip,’’ recalled McDorman, now the executive director of the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance based in Ketchum, Idaho. In fact, he would smuggle some 60 varietals into the United States.

Traveling behind the Iron Curtain in August 1989 was like discovering a secret garden that had been walled off from commercial American seedsmen for generations.

“It was like Disneyland for me,’’ McDorman remembered. “It was just a beautiful place. And then they were all gardening. And they were all saving their own seeds.’’

For McDorman, Siberian seed-saving practices in part reflected what he saw as a romantic connection to an ancient agricultural heritage — in his words, an “unbroken chain’’ to the Russian past. For the Soviets themselves, however, seed saving was at least partly sheer necessity. According to historian Aaron Hale-Dorrell, by the late 1980s, the state’s food distribution system had started to break down. Gardening then took on new importance.

“If you [wanted] a decent tomato, you pretty much [had] to grow it yourself,’’ explained Hale-Dorrell, an independent scholar and a specialist in Soviet agriculture.

Other American seedsmen soon followed in McDorman’s footsteps. First in March 1991, then again in February 1992, the late Kent Whealy, cofounder of the Seed Savers Exchange (SSE)in Iowa, traveled to Russia to collect seeds, according to documents available online from the Kent A. Whealy Archive.

Whealy noted that the high prices Americans were willing to pay for “unique’’ seeds helped open the Russian market. He developed one especially productive source: Marina Danilenko and her mother, a tomato collector. In 1990, they had founded the first private seed company in Moscow, and by 1993, via SSE, they had provided Americans with a staggering 170 new Russian varieties of tomatoes.

Seed sourcing from Russia continues today, although not at the same rate as when the Russian market first opened.

As the USSR crumbled, a generation of American seedsmen faced a great blankness on the map. Like Joseph Conrad’s empire-builders in “Heart of Darkness,’’ they surveyed its seeds, they took its fruits.

“[Russia was] really [the best] genetics laboratory for selecting flavor in tomatoes — across a diverse population — that the world’s ever created,’’ McDorman said.

“There are black tomatoes’’ — Whealy once enthused in a 1993 speech in which he celebrated the immense diversity of the newly available Russian stock — “ tomatoes that have a blush on their cheek like a peach, two-celled tomatoes, and much more.’’

I recently talked to several seed companies about what distinguishes and unifies today’s commercially available Russian types — a disparate group of several dozen varieties of all sizes, shapes, and colors from the big, red ‘Mother Russia,’ pink ‘Siberian Giant,’ and yellow ‘Azoychka,’ to the dusky green-red ‘Black Cherry’ growing vigorously in my own shady little Boston garden.

Andrew Still founded Adaptive Seeds near Sweet Home, Ore., with his wife, Sarah Kleeger, in 2009, and describes the Russians as “a strong pillar of our tomato catalog.’’ Adaptive Seeds currently offers 14 different varietals.

Still, who has grown more than a thousand different kinds of tomatoes over the years, explained that “once you see dozens of different varieties, you start to see themes and characteristics that resonate.’’

A particular hardiness.

A certain Russian flavor.

“[Russians] were kind of separated — almost like a cultural island from North America,’’ Still said, “and it seems like their tomatoes are of a slightly different lineage than North American tomatoes.’’ Russian yellow tomatoes, for example, are more flavorful than their American cousins — the latter intentionally bred for mildness.

Breeding traditions in both countries reflected national differences of taste — differences that, at least on the American side, are now converging.

Penn Parmenter, owner of Miss Penn’s Mountain Seeds in Westcliffe, Colo., offers an impressive list of more than 40 Russian tomato types.

“Those Russians, I’m telling you, they like their flavor,’’ Parmenter said with a laugh. “I’m just so grateful to them for what they do. It’s been incredible, the flavor spectrum that you can find. It isn’t just one or two Siberian tomatoes. There’s hundreds and hundreds of varieties out there that people can choose whatever they’re interested in.’’

Sarah Voiland, co-owner of Red Fire Farm in Granby, north of Springfield, also appreciates the fruit of the Russian tomato breeders’ labor. This season she grew several Russian varietals for her farmers market and CSA customers. “The Russian influence on the tomato genetics has been pretty positive in terms of depth of flavor,’’ Voiland said.

“There’s the issue of Russian influence in other things’’— she said with a laugh —“but here in tomatoes it’s been pretty great.’’

Gene Tempest is a writer and historian who lives in Cambridge. Send comments to Address@globe.com. Subscribe to the Globe’s free real estate newsletter — our weekly digest on buying, selling, and design — at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @globehomes.