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Brandywine tomatoes and the history of genetic study

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - Just the thought of a juicy bite of a red, ripe tomato is enough to get your mouth watering and make you appreciate the heat of summertime. Unlike most vegetable gardeners, tomato connoisseurs can be a bit snobby. They know their tomatoes and can become downright belligerent if you try to convince them that your favorite tomato is better than theirs. But most experts will agree that Brandywine tomato is one of the best with a great “tomato-ey” flavor.

The original Brandywine is a large, meaty, pink tomato with coarse, heavy potato-like foliage. Individual fruit weight is up to a pound and a single slice is large enough to cover a hamburger bun.

The Brandywine growth form is indeterminate with plants taking on a rangy appearance as the summer wears on. Brandywines are late-producing with the first fruit not appearing for 90 to 100 days -- about 30 days later than many cultivars. You’ll probably not find Brandywine in local stores, but it's a natural for the farmer's market trade in August. Although the best known of all heirloom vegetables, the Brandywine does have some flaws: it's low-yielding, tends to ripen unevenly, have green shoulders, catface and to crack badly if rainfall catches the ripening fruit at the wrong time.

Brandywine, at least according to Burpee, was their introduction and first offered in their 1886 catalog. However, according to Craig LeHoullier, a hobbyist turned part-time “seedman” who has over 1,000 tomato seed lines, the early history of the Brandywine is a bit muddled.

Brandywine resurfaced in 1982 when seed from an Ohio family was given to Seed Savers Exchange. The original source of the seeds, a gardener named Doris Sudduth Hill, could trace the seed line back at least 80 years in her own family. Since then, many other strains of Brandywine have appeared and seeds have become available in mainstream seed catalogs.

My favorite horticulturist is Cornell's Liberty Hyde Bailey (1858-1954). Bailey's tenure in academia occurred early in the growth of American agricultural colleges, so there were few textbooks available for classroom use. Single-handedly, Bailey attempted to rectify this deficiency. He wrote 65 books -- one of these “Plant Breeding” first published in 1895. In first editions of the book, Bailey establishes a number of rules for plant breeders to follow. He advises people interested in larger fruit to provide the plants more room, more water and nutrition and to thin the crop to reduce number of fruits formed. By doing this, the superior environment will imprint on the seeds this characteristic of "largeness" and subsequent generations will be larger.

This now disproved theory – “Lamarckism” -- was a widely held view amongst biologists of Bailey’s day. Darwin accepted this belief in the inheritance of environmentally induced traits based on the work of the Frenchman Lamarck who proposed it early in the 19th century. The dogma claimed that environment caused the change in a population instead of the environment selecting individuals from the population with the right set of characteristics to survive.

By the close of the 19th century, scientific thinking was shifting towards "neo-Darwinism," the then yet-to-be-proved idea that variation in individuals is transmitted from the parents and that environmentally induced changes cannot be transmitted to individuals.

Bailey, ever the prolific writer, wrote his views in an 1894 paper on the debate and came down squarely on the wrong side of the fence. Though he stayed with the idea of environment-induced change, it was a citation in the references in Bailey's book that lead Hugo DeVries to discover the work of Gregor Mendel that eventually unlocked the mystery of genetic inheritance. Probably Bailey never read the paper, as it was written in German in an obscure journal.

Bailey corrected his views in the 1905 edition of his textbook, five years after the rediscovery of Mendel's work.

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