A.W. Livingston and His Enduring Tomato Legacy

 Tomato pioneer A.W. Livingston was featured on the cover of his eponymous company's 1891 catalog.

Tomato pioneer A.W. Livingston was featured on the cover of his eponymous company's 1891 catalog.

Believe it or not, tomatoes were once considered poisonous. The history of Tomato 3165 ‘Missouri Pink Love Apple’ is a case in point. This variety came to Seed Savers Exchange by way of Ron Thuma, who in turn received it from the Jennings family of Waverly, Kansas. Grown by the Jennings’s Grandpa Barnes during the Civil War era as an ornamental, this tomato was never eaten by the family because Grandpa Barnes thought the fruits were poisonous.

While tomatoes are actually not poisonous, they did not always have the great taste, consistent shapes, and beautiful colors we are accustomed to today. And we have one breeder to thank for many of these improvements. In the mid 1800s, A.W. Livingston, the father of the modern tomato, began to improve tomatoes by making them smooth-skinned, uniform in size, and more flavorful. After many attempts at hybridization, he used natural variation in open-pollinated populations to select plants that had specific characteristics he found interesting. Using this single plant selection technique, Livingston introduced his first tomato, ‘Paragon,’ in 1870. Livingston and his company bred and released 35 tomato varieties between 1870 and 1941.

By the mid-twentieth century, many Livingston tomatoes had disappeared from the seed trade. In 1999, Mike Dunton’s Victory Seed Company began recreating Livingston’s seed collection; Dunton has successfully located or restored 19 Livingston tomato varieties to date.

 Through field Evaluations, Seed Savers Exchange recently identified its Tomato 364, 'Lutescent,' as Livingston's 'Honor Bright.'

Through field Evaluations, Seed Savers Exchange recently identified its Tomato 364, 'Lutescent,' as Livingston's 'Honor Bright.'

In 2015 and 2016, Seed Savers Exchange conducted field evaluations on more than 30 tomato accessions thought to have originated from Livingston. We compared these accessions to historic descriptions and images, as well as information and images from Victory Seeds, and often corresponded with Mike Dunton. We confirmed the following Seed Savers tomatoes as good matches to historic Livingston varieties: Tomato 4397 ‘Livingston’s Main Crop Pink,’ Tomato 731 ‘Livingston Dwarf Stone,’ ‘Tomato 4497 ‘Livingston Paragon,’ Tomato 4598 ‘Gold Ball,’ Tomato 4699 ‘Livingston’s Beauty,’ and Tomato 5334 ‘Livingston Marvelous.’ We also matched Tomato 364 ‘Lutescent’ to Livingston’s ‘Honor Bright.’ This variety is one of our most unique tomatoes, ripening from green to white to yellow to orange to red. In addition, the flowers are cream-colored, rather than the typical yellow color, and the leaves are yellow-green.

 seed savers exchange's 2017 catalog offers dozens of tomato varieties, including, for the first time, the historic 'Livingston's paragon.'

seed savers exchange's 2017 catalog offers dozens of tomato varieties, including, for the first time, the historic 'Livingston's paragon.'

While Livingston tomatoes typically don’t have the full flavor of a modern-day variety, Livingston dramatically improved upon the status quo with his releases. Our favorite- tasting Livingston tomatoes are Tomato 457 ‘Gulf State Market,’ Tomato 351 ‘Stone’ (aka ‘Livingston’s Stone’), and ‘Livingston’s Marvelous.’ Many people have mentioned that Livingston tomatoes remind them of what tomatoes used to taste like: not too sweet, but with a classic tomato flavor. Seed Savers Exchange added ‘Livingston’s Paragon’ as a limited edition Heritage Farm Collection variety in the 2017 catalog. For more information on Mike Dunton’s work recovering Livingston tomato varieties, visit Victory Seed Company’s website.

"My aim from the first was to grow tomatoes smooth in contour, uniform in size, and better flavored." -A.W. Livingston in Livingston and the Tomato