Seeing Red; The Tomato Fight Years

By Dr Anne Edwards

As recently as the 1930s, there were no outdoor tomato varieties available in the UK.  Tomatoes had to be grown indoors, in a greenhouse, conservatory or handy window sill.

In Merton, scientists at the John Innes Horticultural Institution, as it was known then, were working hard to breed hardy tomatoes that could be grown outside.

As we know, plant breeding takes a lot of time and involves considerable trial and error. Eventually the tomato breeders were successful but along the way vast numbers of plants were grown and considerable harvests generated. There were tomatoes galore.

John Innes staff were invited to take home the experimental surplus which they did with great enthusiasm. However, eventually everyone had had their fill. No-one could face another tomato, yet still the solanaceous fruits kept coming.

It was time for some public outreach…

The residents of Merton were offered as many free tomatoes as they could manage. Unfortunately, the locals were very suspicious of the new-fangled fruits, particularly as some were rather strange shapes, and the tomato mountain continued to grow. Not wanting to see perfectly good food go to waste, the nutritious crop was next offered to the local hospital, where once again it was met with wariness and rejected.

Left with a mound of rotting tomatoes, there was only one option left: A tomato fight.

From that time forth, an inter-department battle became the traditional way to mark the end of the harvest.

At the John Innes Centre tomato research continues to this day, though sadly the annual tomato fight is one tradition that hasn’t stood the test of time. This is a shame as Professor Cathie Martin’s purple tomatoes would have added a whole new colourful dimension…