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Alexander Livingston Refines the Tomato’s Selection Process

How did we get from the paltry selection of tomatoes available as recently as the 1880s to the stunning and overwhelming collection of tomatoes that we are able to select from today, the number of which is likely over 10,000 in terms of unique names? The seed houses at the time did their best to improve the tomato, but it was the work of Alexander Livingston that provided the breakthrough.

Misconceptions abounded when considering efforts to improve the tomato prior to 1870. Most felt that by simply saving seeds from a particular tomato that exhibited a distinct characteristic — be it earliness, smoothness, or lack of cracking — and growing them the following year, the tomatoes on the plants that resulted would move toward the improvement. As an example, if a particular variety ripened its fruit later than one hoped, saving seed from the first ripe tomatoes on the plants would, with any luck, result in an earlier variety. The problem with the theory of single-fruit selections is that all tomatoes from a particular plant contain seeds that are essentially the same genetically.

And this is why tomato improvements were so stubborn, until the efforts of Mr. Alexander Livingston of Reynoldsburg, Ohio. Livingston, the founder of what would become the Livingston Seed Company, had a revelation: rather than focusing on the fruits, he looked at large plantings of tomatoes and selected a particular plant that showed a favorable characteristic. He correctly assumed that there was something genetically different about that particular plant, and that if seeds were saved from tomatoes from that plant, an improved variety was possible, given some further selection work.

In truth, a different plant in a fairly uniform planting could well be a rare mutation, or the result of cross pollination; either way, it was an appropriate starting point for new varieties. Using his new single-plant selection technique, Livingston went on to revolutionize the tomato in America. Between his first new tomato introduction, Paragon (1870), and the later Globe (1906), the Livingston Seed Company introduced a set of tomatoes that represented significant improvements on what had come before, typically in terms of relative smoothness and uniformity of shape. This was

at a time when many tomatoes were irregularly shaped, leading to considerable waste in the canning process (during a period when canning was a burgeoning industry and very important to many farmers and home gardeners for ensuring tomato supplies during the off season).

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