CORVALLIS - Oregon State University Agricultural Experiment Station vegetable breeders have developed a late blight resistant, yet early-bearing tomato. Seeds and transplants of this promising tomato, called 'Legend,' will be available at seed companies and nurseries this spring.
Legend sets fairly large fruit under the cool maritime conditions of the Pacific Northwest. Plant breeders classify tomatoes such as these as "parthenocarpic," because they set fruit without fertilization. This means that the cool weather of western Oregon summers that slows down pollinators won't affect the fruit set of this type of tomato plant; parthenocarpic tomato plants set fruit without a pollinator's help.
"We think that parthenocarpic varieties are earlier because they are setting fruit when non-parthenocarpic varieties are dropping their blossoms, because cold weather prevents fertilization," explained Deborah Kean, a research assistant at the OSU vegetable research farm outside of Corvallis.
With considerably larger fruits than 'Oregon Spring' or 'Siletz' - other OSU-developed early varieties - Legend sets fruit earlier than Oregon Spring and sometimes earlier than Siletz.
The Legend plant appears to be stronger, with larger stiffer leaves than the other two varieties. Legend is a determinate plant, typically spreading to 36 inches in good growing conditions.
As a bonus, Legend is resistant to late blight, a fungal disease that kills tomato plants in home and market gardens. Late blight is caused by the same fungus (Phytophthora infestans) that caused the famous Irish potato famine of the 1840s. All strains are devastating to tomatoes and potatoes.
With mid-May planting of transplants, the first Legend fruits typically ripen at the OSU Vegetable Research Farm outside of Corvallis by about Aug. 1, with an early peak of production.
To grow your own Legend transplants, seed should be started indoors about mid-April if you have ideal growing conditions, with heated soil and grow lights. If you are starting your seeds in a window or in an unheated greenhouse, it is better to start them as early as the first half of March, advised Kean.
Legend fruits are round, averaging about a half-pound each, but may reach or exceed a pound, and they are nearly four inches wide. Legend has more uniform ripening than Siletz or Oregon Spring.
Resistance to a disease like late blight is different from immunity, warned Jim Myers, OSU vegetable breeder who helped develop Legend.
"What we mean by resistance is that progress of the disease is slowed," explained Myers. "Gardeners can expect a two- to three-week longer harvest period than susceptible tomato cultivars. But given the right weather, late blight may eventually overcome the resistance. Resistance is not an 'end all.'
"Late blight is a difficult disease for which to breed because there are a number of different races of late blight," he added. "Genes in the tomato plant for resistance are race specific, so if a new race invades, or the old race mutates, then resistance may break down. Resistance has held up in Oregon, but I've had reports of it breaking down on Vancouver Island (in British Columbia) and in the San Francisco area."
Myers worked with Jim Baggett, retired OSU vegetable breeder, to develop Legend. Both Baggett and Myers believe that Legend is an overall superior tomato to Siletz and Oregon Spring, even without considering its late blight resistance.
Legend seed and transplants are available to home and market gardeners through local nurseries and garden centers. Also, mail order and web seed catalogs carry Legend seed, including these Oregon companies: Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 Old Salem Road N.E., Albany, OR 97321-4580, toll free 1-800-422-3985 and Territorial Seed Company, P.O. Box 158, Cottage Grove, OR 97424-0061, telephone 541-942-9547.