For many years, specific groups have worked to keep heirloom plants from becoming extinct in an era of hybrid cultivation.
Probably the largest and most well-known of these groups is Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit organization supported by its members, who save and share rare garden seeds passed down through several generations. Founded in 1975, Seed Savers Exchange estimates it has distributed more than a million samples of rare garden seeds, many of which are used by seed companies, small farmers, chefs and home gardeners, according to the organization's website.
But seed saving and sharing isn't just the stuff of large organizations. Every season, home gardeners spend time gathering, saving and sharing the seeds of their favorite plants. Some of these seeds are not only being passed down through several generations, but many have traveled the globe with the growers who bring them along when they immigrate to new countries.
This is the story of a tomato variety that isn't well known, nor is it widely available, yet two different sources somehow found each other and work together to continue the heritage of what may have been a lost species.
The story begins with Audrey John, a Niles resident and curator of the historic Ward Thomas Museum. The museum, an impressive Victorian mansion located at 503 Brown St. in Niles, was built in 1862 by industrial leader James Ward Sr.
After the panic of 1873 drove the Ward family out of the area, the mansion sat abandoned for a short time before it was purchased in 1887 by John R. Thomas. The Thomas family maintained the 100 acre farm and established the Niles Fire Brick Company. It is believed that the youngest of the five Thomas children, Mary, who later married Jacob Waddell and continued to live in the house throughout her life, coordinated the planting of the gardens surrounding the mansion along with the construction of the greenhouse in 1925. Mary died in 1969, and in 1979, the house was deeded to the city. The Niles Historical Society was entrusted to establish the house as a museum and over the years the society has worked to restore much of the property and its adjacent buildings. Part of that restoration included the greenhouse and some of Mary Thomas Waddell's gardens.
Saving tomato seeds
1. Cut tomato in half and scoop out seeds and gelatin-like material into a bowl or jar and add water until the seeds are covered.
2. Cover the container with cheesecloth or paper towel to keep insects out.
3. Let sit in a warm, dry place until the mixture starts to ferment and the seeds sink to the bottom.
4. Lift the layer of mold from the top of the mixture with a fork or other utensil and rinse the seeds thoroughly in a fine sieve.
5. Lay the seeds on wax paper or a glass plate to dry. Don't use paper towels or the seeds will stick.
6. Store in a sealed container in a dry place.
While the Niles Historical Society worked on those renovations, John's brother, Bill Bieber, while vacationing in Florida more than 25 years ago, acquired seeds from a friend of an unusual tomato he called ''Israeli.'' Over the years, Bieber saved the seeds from the plants he grew and also shared them with his sister.
''I'm a farmer from way back,'' John said. ''We had been farming for seven generations and I am very proud of how our family has worked the land and we've taken care of it,'' she said.
John began starting the plants at her home and growing her own Israeli tomatoes.
About the time John started growing the tomatoes, she was visiting Gilmore's Greenhouse on the corner of Niles Road and Virginia Avenue in Warren, when she spotted flats of tomato plants labeled "Israili tomatoes" for sale there. Coincidentally, John Gilmore also received seeds of the unusual tomato from an unlikely source.
Gilmore often starts unusual seeds that customers bring to his business, he said. In addition to the tomatoes, he also grows ''sweet goathorn peppers'' from seeds brought to him from a customer.
''These are guys who are really passionate about what they grow,'' Gilmore said.
The tomato seeds were given to him by a man who brought the seeds from Arizona, Gilmore said.
Gilmore said he's never seen the seeds available in catalogs, but believes they were grown for their tolerance to heat and drought. Gilmore has been selling the tomato seedlings at his business for about seven years, and when his original source for the seeds stopped bringing them in, John began sharing with him the seeds she saves each year.
''This year, I started 600 plants,'' Gilmore said. ''There are people who come in every year and specifically ask for them,'' he said.
Gilmore, who doesn't grow the tomatoes or save the seeds himself, depends on the critiques of his customers, he said. Customers tell him the pinkish-red fruits vary in size and, like most pale fleshed tomatoes, are lower in acid.
Not all tomato seeds can be saved. Hybrid plants, those first generation offspring of two parent plants, don't grow true from seeds. Only heirloom seeds, those passed on through many generations, have dependable characteristics. To avoid contamination from cross pollination, John said the Israeli tomatoes is the only variety she grows in her home garden.
This spring, along with the over-wintered red geraniums that adorn the museum grounds throughout the summer, John also started tomato plants in the greenhouse at the Ward Thomas Museum. At the Niles Historical Society's spring open house at the museum in May, plants were given to the first 40 visitors who stopped by to tour the museum and gardens.
The museum is open to the public from 2 to 5 p.m. the first Sunday of each month and will be open at its regular time on July 4.