From the Chia Pet to the Topsy Turvy tomato planter, every year the newest wave of garden gadgets or plants hits the marketplace. One of the newest is the tomato tree. A University of Georgia expert advises home gardeners to do their homework before ordering one.
“Tomato trees are being advertised in the backs of magazines as one of the newest gardening plants,” said Wade Hutcheson, the UGA Cooperative Extension agent in Spalding County. “This is definitely a case of buyer beware.”
Trees vs. plants
The tomato tree (Cyphonandra betacea) is a perennial shrub, he said. If planted in the proper region, the tree produces fruit from flowers in three months.
Tomato plants (Solanum lycopersicum) are annual vines that produce fruit in weeks, not months.
“The heavily producing (tomato) tree bears tomatoes that are oblong in size,” Hutcheson said. “I’ve never tasted or seen one, but I’ve been told they are nowhere as sweet as traditional tomatoes.”
Clarke County gardener Gary Burton agrees. He grew tomato trees from seeds a few years ago.
Ugly, tasteless fruit
“They did grow tall, and the tomatoes were large,” he said. “But the fruit was ugly, scarred and split. And it didn’t have a memorable flavor.”
Burton said the trees were easy to grow, but took up a lot of space. He grew several and shared the plants with his gardening friends.
“Several people who took them pretty much had the same experience I did,” he said. “Only one person asked me about the tomato trees the next season, and I haven’t planted them again.”
Most of Georgia too cold
Unluckily for most Georgians who may want to try growing a tomato tree, the plant must be grown in frost-free locations.
“The definite downside is that it’s not going to survive outside in Georgia’s winter,” Hutcheson said.
As for Burton, he’s staying true to traditional tomato plants.
“Tomato tree fruit may be big, red and juicy, but it’s not nearly as good as Big Beef, Park’s Whopper or Goliath Hybrid,” he said.