Addendum to Herb Society Lecture on Unusual Herbs to Grow

These are some extra notes about the herbs I spoke about in my talk on unusual herbs at the Annual Conference of the Herb Society of America on June 21, 2014, including a list of mail order sources for seeds and/or plants. If you want more info about these herbs, send me questions as comments. Or, if you'd like a repeat of the talk I gave to the Herb Society, send me a line about that (see Contact).

The Herbs:

Ocimum kilimandscharicum and O. basilicum 'Dark Opel'--African Blue Basil

This plant is covered thoroughly on  other pages of this blog. Do a search for other posts about it.

 

Herbalea Basils

'Wild Magic', 'Green Ball', 'Habana'

These are the three of the new, patented Herbalea basils I was able to purchase locally. There are up to 15 Herbalea varieties. I have nothing to add about them today, but will be blogging about them more as I continue to grow and cook with them.

 

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Calamintha nepeta--nepitella

This mint family herb has a flavor of mint and oregano together. It is popular in Tuscan cuisine, especially with mushrooms and artichoke.

Has, in the past, been classified as a thyme, melissa, clinopodium, and satureja. Has also been called Calamintha glandulosa.

Etymology:

cala, from Gr. kalos=beautiful   and    minthe=mint

Related Species:

There are two other common Calamintha species that you may encounter--and that are not the herb  nepitella! They are Calamintha sylvatica and Calamintha officinalis.

Funghi e Zucchini Trifolati (Mushrooms and Zucchini sliced thinly as you would truffles)

Adapted from adribarrcrocetti.com

 1 Pound mushrooms (cremini, porcini, white button, or any combination), thinly sliced

2 small zucchini (about 8 ounces), thinly sliced

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons of chopped nepitella

2 tablespoons of chopped parsley

1 teaspoon salt, divided

freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons olive oil

 Brush the mushrooms or wipe them with a damp towel to clean. Cut off and discard the dry ends of the stalks. Slice mushrooms thinly. Slice zucchini into very thin rounds.

Heat olive oil in a 12 inch sauté pan over medium heat. Add garlic and cook until it takes on a pale gold tone. Do not brown garlic, or it will be bitter. Increase to medium high and add mushrooms. Sauté, tossing mushrooms until they have taken up the oil. Don't be tempted to add more oil. Add 1/2 teaspoons of salt and continue cooking, tossing occasionally.

As the mushrooms cook, they will exude liquid. Cook until the liquid is almost completely evaporated, which will take 5-8 minutes.

Add zucchini and the other 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Cook until tender. Add a few twists of freshly ground black pepper and the herbs. Toss lightly. Remove from heat. Test for seasoning. Serve.

Eat this hot as a side dish, or cold as a crostini or antipasto.

 

Dracocephalus moldavica--dragonhead, moldavian balm

Entire plant has a lemony flavor. It is grown to make tea and for its attractive, blue, edible flowers.

This plant has been known as Moldavica moldavica.

Etymology:

 draco=dragon   cephalum=head   moldavica=from from Moldavia

Related species:

Dracocephalus parviflorum, American dragonhead, is native to Alaska and is treasured there as a native plant whose oil-rich seeds provide a food for birds. Has a slight minty smell to crushed leaves, probably hasn't been explored as an herb.

The ornamental Phystostegia virginiana, best known as obedience plant, is also sometimes called "false dragonhead." The quite similar Phystostegia parviflora was once called Dracocephalum nuttali.

 

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Dysphania ambrosioides--epazote

A strong-scented herb native to Mexico and used in Mexican cuisine with beans and in sauces.

Until quite recently, ths plant was classified as Chenopodium abrosioides, and is still considered quite similar to the chenopodiumns, although no chenopodium I know of has that strong a scent.

Etymology: 

 fr. Greek dysphanis=obscure, referring to the inconspicuous flowers, ambrosioides fr. Latin, ambrosia, referring to some similarity a botanist saw to plants in the genus Ambrosia (ragweed)

Etymology of the common name: from Nahuatle, informally known as Aztec, epatl=skunk and tzotl=dirt

Recipe Adapted From The Complete Book of Mexican Cooking, by Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz

Frijoles

2 cups pinto, black, or red beans                  3 Tablespoons lard or salad oil (I used olive oil)

2 onions, finely chopped                               Salt

2 cloves garlic, chopped                                Freshly ground pepper

Sprig of epazote (or a bay leaf)                     I Tomato, peeled, seeded, and chopped

2 or more serrano chiles, chopped

Wash the beans and place in a saucepan without soaking, with enough cold water to cover, 1 of the chopped onions, one of the garlic cloves, the epazote (or bay leaf) and the chiles. [If you can't find fresh serranos, she suggeste dried pequin chiles, crumbled. You could also try a bit of fresh Jalapeno, or you could reduce, or omit chiles] Cover, bring to a boil, reduce heat; then simmer gently, adding more boiling water as it boils away. When the beans begin to wrinkle, add one tablespoon of the lard or oil. Continue cooking until the beans are soft. At this point, stir in enough salt to taste. Cook another 30 minutes over the same heat, but do not add water, as there should not be a great deal of liquid when the beans are done. Heat the remaining lard [or oil] in a skillet and sauté the remaining onion and garlic until limp. Add the tomato and cook for about two minutes over medium heat; add three tablespoons of beans, bit by bit, with some of the liquid from the pot, and mash, until you have a smooth, fairly heavy paste. Return this to the bean pot and stir into the beans over low heat to thicken the remaining liquid. .

[The epazote adds a very subtle flavor, not at all what you expect from the scent of the raw plant. I served this with a little bottled green sauce splashed on top, which made it even better. )

 

Cryptotaenia japonica

A celery family herb/vegetable that grows best in shade.

Etymology:

Crypto from Greek kryptos=hidden and tainia=fillet or ribbon

I think this means that oil tubes, present in plants of this family, are hidden in some way. There are typical oil-tube ridges on the seeds (really fruits), so I'm not sure what is hidden.

Related species:

Cryptotaenia canadensis

Native to the Eastern half of the US and Canada and known as honewort. Similar in appearance to C. japonica and also edible. Grows in shady places. Seed available from Prairie Moon Nursery (prairiemoon.com). If you are seeking it in the wild, check first to learn if it is a listed endangered species your state.  Also be aware that some wild members of the celery plant family are deadly poisons--so make sure you have the identified the plant correctly before you eat it.

 

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Centella asiatica--gotu kola

This celery family herb is used in Asian cooking, including blended into a sweetened drink.

This plant was once classified as Hydrocotyle asiatica.

There has been much discussion about whether the Centella growing in the Western Hemisphere (US and Canada) are the same species as the one growing in Asia. The North American plants have been called Centella erecta, but are often now considered a variety of Centella asiatica.

Etymology:

centella is a diminutive of cent, therefore a "little coin"

Related Species:

Several Hydrocotyle species are found in both Asia and some parts of the U.S. They differ from Centella in having a leaf stem (petiole) in the middle of a round leaf (peltate) rather than at the edge of a shovel or kidney shaped leaf. The Hydrocotyles are, like Centella, fond of wet places and are edible.

Be aware if you plan to collect any of these plants in the wild that they can carry bacteria if growing in unclean water and can also take up toxins that might be in the water.

 Recipe From Encyclopedia of Asian Food By Charmaine Solomon

2 bunches gotu-kola or

about 250 g/8 oz/ 2 cups leaves without stems

3 shallots or

1 small onion, finely chopped

Good squeeze lime or

lemon juice

1 sliced chilli (optional)

75 g/2-1/2 oz/1 cup fresh grated coconut

Salt to taste

1/2 teaspoon sugar

Wash well and strip leaves from stems. Shred finely with a sharp knife, combine with other ingredients and serve immediately. The flavor is slightly sour, slightly bitter. Some people prefer this salad to be lightly cooked, if so bring a tablespoon of water and 1/2 teaspoon salt to the boil in a wok or pan, add all iingredients and toss over heat briefly, stopping before leaves lose their green color.

 

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Houttuynia cordata--fish mint, lizard tail

The plant has a strong scent and flavor that reminds some of fish. It is used in SE Asian cooking.

This plant is in the family Saureraceae, whose name derives from the root saur, meaning lizard.

Another genus in this family has a long, drooping, lizard tail-like flower head, and the name floats around the family.

Etymology:

Houttuynia is named after the Dutch botanist Martin Houttyn, who lived 1720-1798. Cordata refers to the heart-shaped leaves.

An Ornamental Cultivar:

The plant is sometimes called "chameleon plant" which is an echo of the name of a popular ornamental cultivar. In fact, non Asians might never have seen the original, green-leaved species that is used as an herb.

Related Species:

Anemopsis californica is a plant in a different genus in the Saureraceae that is native to California and nearby southwestern states. It was called yerba mansa by native Californians, who used it medicinally. It is now sold by native plant nurseries as an ornamental that grows to 3 feet tall, with large gray-green leaves and large spikes of tiny flowers, each with its white bract, and several white bracts at the base of the spike. It can be grown in wet places and is cold hardy.

 

Persicaria odorata--rau ram, Vietnamese coriander

Has a flavor that Westerners consider close to that of cilantro, but is not used as a substitute in Asian cooking, but as an herb with a distinctive flavor of its own.

All Persicarias used to be Polygonums.

Etymology:

 Persicaria is from the Latin word persicum, meaning peach. Someone thought the leaves resembled those of a peach tree.

Related Species:

You will come across other Persicarias, both domestic and weedy. The weedy ones are often given the common name of knotweed, as in common knotweed or swamp knotweed. The ornamental species and varieties are often grown for their colorful leaves, sometimes purple, sometimes variegated. A very common species, grown in gardens for many years, is P. capitata, a ground  cover plant with small round heads of pink flowers. I did not investigate edibility or flavor of other species of Persicaria.

 

Tagetes lucida--sweet mace, winter tarragon

Most marigolds, plants in the daisy family, have an unpleasant, pungent flavor, the leaves of this one are sweet and similar to tarragon in flavor.

Etymology:

Tagetes refers to the Roman god Tages, an adopted son or grandson of Jupiter, who was originally the Etruscan god of prophecy. Lucida is from the Latin root meaning clear or bright, referring to the bright flowers. Tagetes lucida is sometimes sold as "Mexican mint marigold." The common name marigold was given to plants in the Western Hemisphere genus Tagetes by Euorpeans. They chose this name because Tagetes flowers  reminded them of the European flower Calendula. As is frequently the case with medieval European plant names, the word marigold is a Catholic reference, short for Mary's Gold--a flower of the Virgin Mary.

Related Species:

This is not the marigold commonly listed as having edible flowers. That is Tagetes tenuifolia, or signet marigold. The flowers of that species are milder in flavor than those of most marigolds, but the plant doesn't have the sweet flavor of Tagetes lucida.

 

Mail Sources for Plants Discussed by Pam Peirce at the Annual Meeting of the Herb Society of America

In Concord, CA, June 21, 2014 (See web addresses of suppliers at the end of the list.)

 

African Blue Basil

Richters Herbs--Plants

 

Herbalea Basils (Wild Magic, etc.)

No Mailorder Source Located Yet

Sold locally by Sweetwater Nursery

 

Nepitella

Richters Herbs--seeds and plants

Valley Seed Company--seeds 

Nichols Garden Nursery--seeds

Richters Herbs

Nichols Garden Nursery

                              

Dysphania ambrosioides--Epazote

Nichols Garden Nursery

 

Cryptotaenia japonics--Mitsuba

Nichols Garden Nursery--seeds

Richters Herbs--seeds

 

Centalla asiatica--Gotu Kola

Richters Herbs--plants

 

Houttuynia cordata

Richters sells plants of both green and tricolor {'Chameleon') varieties

 

Persicaria odorata--Rau Ram

Richters sells plants including "Colosso' plants, which are shipped April-Nov and are 12.00 each!

 

Tagetes lucida--Sweet Mace or Winter Tarragon

Richters sells seeds of the species and plants of Tarragold--a trademarked variety.

 

Web Addresses of Sources Listed Above:

richters.com

nicholsgardennursery.com

valleyseedco.com

 

 


More Late Summer Bloom for San Francisco

I've been writing about flowers that bloom in my garden in late summer and fall. This time of year is always a challenge, because the summer is dry and so many mediterranean and California native plants bloom earlier in the year. I have the further problem that my garden is in a foggy and cool part of the city, and the backyard goes into shade in fall and winter. This results in outbreaks of powdery mildew diseases and gray mold. So I am writing about plants that resist these diseases.

The photo below is of pineapple sage, Salvia elegans, which provides reliable color, from September into November. The photo was taken on October 15th. November 15th, it was still in bloom. The spot where it is planted is in sun from April until September, then in open shade, so it gets the sun it needs to prepare to bloom.

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This plant attracts hummingbirds and offers a whiff of pineapple to gardeners who brush against it. The edible flowers are attractive in salads, especially in a fruit salad. The leaves have such a tantilizing scent, but unfortunately, do not hold the scent when they have been cooked.

In winter, pneapple sage loses most of its leaves. In spring, I cut back any bare stems, and new, leafy ones grow to replace them.

Another late-blooming flower with tubular red flowers is the California fuchsia. (It used to be called Zauschneria californica, but has had a botanical name change, so it is now to be called Epilobium canuum.) I grow it in a place that gets sun all year, but it could handle winter shade, since it is mostly dormant in winter. You wouldn't want it too near to a pineapple sage plant, in any case, since one small, red tubular flower in a small space is enough.

California fuchsia blooms from July onward into autumn. This year, following our spectacularly mild November, some parts of the plant are still blooming at the end of December. It has no scent, however it does share with pineapple sage that it attracts hummingbirds. It has no scent. The other morning when I went to pick up the paper, a hummer was taking its breakfast in the California fuchsias. 

The main drawback I have found to California fuchsia is that the plant is very brittle. If a cat fight happens in it, or you have to reach through it to get to other plants, the meter reader has to push it aside to read a metor, damage will occur. Pieces will break off and have to be discarded. So be careful where you put it.

After California fuchsia blooms, it looks pretty ratty and you will want to cut it back. Maybe the first year just cut back partway, but  I cut my established plants to near the ground and it comes back fine.

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For some bright yellow in late summer and autumn, grow goldenrod. There is a native species, Solidago californica, which I think is the one in the photo. These plants are about 3 feet tall and were covered with bees--honeybees, bumble bees, large and small native bees--they were all having a feast.

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Here is a big bee, probably native, not a bumblebee.

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This one was a wee little bee, probably another native. After goldenrod blooms, cut it back partway. It is a semi-evergreen perennial. And, by the way, it is falsely accused of causing hayfever. Apparently it is the ragweed that blooms at the same time as Eastern goldenrod species that is the culprit.

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Coming up: Some flowers for winter color.


Ornamental Ginger--Late Summer Bloom in San Francisco

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I continue my entries on flowers that bloom in August/September/October in my San Francisco garden. The garden is cool in summer, often foggy, damp, and almost completely in shade in late autumn through late winter. Many common late summer into fall flowers get gray mold or a powdery mildew in these conditions. Here's another that does not.
The plant piectured above was given to me as "ginger". It's Hedychium gardnerianum or Kahiri ginger, a plant native to the Himalayas. (Must be the lower parts of the Himalayas, where winter isn't so cold, but high enough that it doesn't require high heat and can tolerate cool summer nights.) I love having its big, bright, interesting, highly fragrant flowers in my garden at the end of the summer season.

Note that this isn't culinary ginger, not the one that's edible, only an ornamental plant with "ginger" in the common name.

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The part of the garden it's in is in shade, albeit open shade, from August until Aprill. But the plant blooms in late August and into September anyway, and never has a touch of botrytis or other fungus disease.

Here is how the plants look when they aren't blooming. They are 3-4 feet tall.

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In a warmer place, or if they had the right pollinator (not sure which or if it's both)  the flowers would be followed by orange fruits, but they haven't here. I have read that the plant is an invasive weed in Hawaii, where it does form seed, so it's just as well that it doesn't make seed here.

In any case, after they bloom, I cut off the spent flowers. By the next spring, the leafy stems that bloomed start to look kind of ragged, and, if the plant is healthy, about the same number of new shoots begin to come up at their bases. As soon as the new shoots are tall enough to be attractive, I cut the old ones to the ground, or actually, they sort of snap off just at soil level.

For the first 2-3 years I had the plants, they didn't bloom and made few new shoots. Whether they were just young, or needed better care, I can't say. After that time, I started fertilizing the plants in spring and summer, and giving them more water, and then they started blooming and growing new blooming stems each year.

Next entry (to come soon): California fuchsia vs. pineapple sage--two hummingbird pleasers.

 


Pineapple Lily--Flowers for Late Summer in San Francisco Gardens

My San Francisco garden is often foggy, cool, and damp in the summer, too much so for a number of late summer-into-fall kinds of flowers. I'm starting a series of posts about some plants that bloom in my garden in this season without succumbing to botrytis (gray mold) or other diseases encouraged by the cool, damp microclimate.

This first flower is Eucomis, also known as pineapple lily. I like it because it looks so dramatic, but it is easy to grow. I have grown it in containers for many years. It blooms without fail in mid-August and lasts several weeks. The leaves are low to the ground; the flower stem is over a foot tall.

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This plant is Eucomis comosa, which has white or pink flowers. Eucomis cl IMG_5021 copy
Here's a close up of one that has pinker flowers. You can see they are like miniature lilies. It is indeed a lily relative, but not related to pineapple. That name comes from the little tuft of leaves at the top of the flower stem, like the one above a pineapple.

Eucomis grows from bulbs, which you may find at a local nursery in the spring, or may have to mail order from a bulb specialty company. It can be grown in the ground if you like, or you can plant one or more bulbs in a container. In the ground or in a container, plant so the neck of the bulb shows at the surface.The plants are hardy to 10 degrees F.

Though the porch on which they are growing goes into shade while the Eucomis is still in bloom, becoming even more cool and damp, it never becomes infected with botrytis or any other disease. After it blooms, the flower stems and leaves pull out of the bulb easily and can be composted.

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Here is a group of eucomis plants in several containers. The ones in the back right are Eucomis bicolor, a similar species that has pale green flowers with purple edges. This species has the same growing needs as E. comosa.

 


Early Blight Appears on Local Potatoes

When I saw these symptoms on some potatoes in a local garden, I thought they looked like early blght of potato and tomato, a disease caused by the fungus Alternaria solani. But I thought it unlikely, because this is not a common disease in our region. I tried to return to get good photos of the diseased plants, but when I arrived, the plants had been pulled, so my photos show leaves I selected to show the symptoms.

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The most diagnostic symptom is those dark brown lesions on the leaves with concentric rings visible in them. Those are from repeated growth of the fungus and release of spores. Symptoms are similar on tomato. Also susceptible are a number of wild potato/tomato relatives and other members of this plant family.

Eventually, the brown spots coalesce so that the entire leaves become brown and die.

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(This is an entirely different disease from Late Blight, which is Phytophthora infestans. Search this blog for more on that disease, with photos of its symptoms.)

Potato/tomato early blight is spread by spores, as are most fungi. I sent a sample of the diseased leaves, through the Cooperative Extension, to Brenna Aegarter, a UC potato expert in Stockton to ask for help identifying the disease. She lifted spores from the leaves with Scotch tape and put them under the microscope. Here is what she saw, followed by her reply:

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"There is clearly Ulocladium and Cladosporium (which are common “molds” on senescing/decaying leaves) as well as some Alternaria spores. However, the challenge is that there are two types of Alternarias in the world. One type is a common mold and would often be found on dying leaves. The other type are pathogens of plants and infect tissue that is living (and includes Alternaria solani cause of early blight). The ones that are not pathogens have short “beaks” while the pathogenic ones have long beaks (the narrow section of the spore that extends out).  Under the microscope I saw Alternaria spores with beaks, but the beaks were not so long as to entirely convince me that they are spores of Alternaria solani. But I have sent my photo to a colleague to see what he thinks. Stay tuned!"

Later, I heard from her to the effect that her colleague had confirmed that the beaked spores are Alternaria solani. If you look at the slide, you will see the ones with a long point on one end. There are the other, decay bacteria spores also, and I think the large, long objects are probably plant hairs.

I will, in my next post, explain this disease and what to do about it.


Saving Miner's Lettuce Seed

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If you live in California, and want to grow this wonderful edible native plant, miner's lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), now is the time to save some seed. I wrote about it in Golden Gate Gardening, as an edible weed, but it's so good it is worth growing on purpose.

If miner's lettuce grows somewhere nearby, you can collect it now, save the seed. Then, in Fall, you can scatter it. It should be well up in December, and then will make its lovely, succulent leaves, so delicious in a salad, until the following April.

To find seed for next year, look now, in late April or in May, for plants with circular leaves that are still green and have long flowering stems. Thse will have a number of seedpods forming on the stems, with maybe a flower at the top. Gather some of these leaves, or, if you like, a whole plant bearing a few of them. 

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Spread what you have collected on newspaper indoors. Use a fully opened piece of newsprint, or maybe two or three together. As the pods dry, the seeds will pop out, and will actually jump up to a couple of feet from the pod. Thus you will find them all around the paper, or, if it is too small, on the floor nearby. The seeds are small, rounded, and shiny black. They have a white tip on one side where they were attached to the pods.

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The process will take a week or two. Here you can see the seeds and bits of pods around a plant that is drying. After the seeds pop out, you will have to separate them from the chaff. You can do this with various kitchen items, such as collanders or sieves. I used a sieve, which left me with some tiny fine chaff mixed with seeds, then blew lightly to get the chaff to fly away. It doesn't have to be perfect, of course, but seeds are easier to sow if they are free of debris, and also any bits of plant mixed with them can bring moisture that can lead to decay.

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Here's a closer view of some of the seeds before I cleaned out the chaff. After you've removed most of the chaff, keep the seeds in an open dish or jar for a couple more weeks, to make absolutely sure they are dry. Then you can store them in a paper packet or you can close the jar. Be sure to label your seeds as Miner's Lettuce and write the date of the year you saved the seed.

Make a note in your calendar so you'll remember plant the seed in October. Scatter it in an out-of-the way corner of your garden, in moist soil you have amended and dug. Scratch the soil surface a bit after you sow, pat the surface lightly, and then water. Water to keep the surface moist if rains don't do it for you. The seed leaves are long and narrow. The first few leaves will be triangular. Then the mature leaves form, the round ones. You can eat them, flowers and all, after the flowers start to form in their centers, but when the flower stems elongate they are ready for another year of seed saving. Or just let some fall in place, in hopes the plants will self-sow!

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Here's a salad containing miner's lettuce, corn salad, edible flowers, and some cut up chard stems.


Watsonias--Wildly Successful Plant of Late Spring

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In April and May I look for Watsonias. I love these big, graceful plants, with tall stems of trumpet-shaped flowers. These easy-to-grow bulb plants are one of South Africa's best gifts to Bay Area gardeners. They are among the 50 plants I featured in my book Wildly Successful Plants: Northern California, as very well suited to our gardens and easy to grow. (See cover, at right) They thrive in cool or hot summer areas. I don't know of an insect pest or a disease that troubles them, and snails don't seem interested either. 

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The red one in the two photos above is a hybrid, one of several usually available in nurseries for fall planting.  

After you plant the bulbs (correctly, they are corms), the leaves begin to grow with the first rains. They usually don't need any irrigation beyond rainfall to mature and bloom. Even last winter, which was rather dry, I didn't water mine, though I might do so in a really, really dry winter. After weeks of glorious mid- to late spring bloom, they die back in early summer. You don't have to water them in summer either. These are truly drought-tolerant plants! If the soil is well-drained, they won't mind a little summer water, but if kept too moist, they won't bloom as well the following year.

            The reason Watsonias do so well here is that they are from the Cape Region of South Africa, which has a similar rainfall pattern to ours. The regions where they grow have poor, sandy soil, so our rather poor soils are not a problem, though they can take moderate fertility, if you want to dig in a little compost. They stand up to wind and cool temperatures. They thrive in foggy microclimates. Full sun is best near the coast, but half-day will do. If you garden in a hotter inland microclimate, they will appreciate the hot soil while they are dormant. The spring-blooming Watsonias described here are hardy to 10° F.

            It's best to cut the flower stalks after they bloom and, in mid to late summer, cut brown leaves to the ground, before new green ones start to grow, so that they won't distract from next year's show. The deadheading and cutting back is really the only annual care they need.

            Watsonias are grand at the back of a border, where their 5- 6 foot tall flower stalks will be seen over other plants. Another way to grow them is behind a hedge, so they stand above it when in bloom, disappear when they die back. Or mix them into a narrow border with other plants of similar height--shrubs or other tall perennials. In addition to ornamenting the garden, Watsonias make good cut flowers.

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            Most of the Watsonia plants I see growing are hybrids, with peach, pink, or red flowers, which are readily available at nurseries for fall planting. I also see the pink or white-blooming ones that represent the species, Watsonia borbonica, especially in older gardens.

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I think the pink one in the three previous photos is the species, Watsonia borbonica. It is described as having "violet" stamens, and these look violet to me.

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This white one may be Watsonia borbonica ardernii, a subspecies that was discovered in the wild.

            Plant the corms about 4 inches deep and 6 inches apart. You can plant in a circular area to get a nice clump, or could plant in a row.

            While the plants will thrive with little care, if you have time, and want to groom your plants to keep your garden looking at its best, here is what to do:

            While the plants are blooming, remove spent flowers every few days. They will fall off in your hand at a slight pull. When the top flower of the central stalk of flowers has bloomed and faded, cut that stalk off where it joins a lower flower branch that still has buds or open flowers. (You will need hand pruners for this, as the stalks are tough). When all of the side stalks have finished blooming, cut the entire flower stalk short enough that the cut end won't be visible above the leaves.

            When all of the flower stalks have been cut, you can ignore the plant until all the leaves turn brown, or you can go out every couple of weeks and remove brown leaves. It is up to you. But when all the leaves are brown, cut them as short as you can. You will need sharp pruners to do it. Don't wait until the green "swords" of the new leaves push through in fall, or you will have a devil of a time avoiding injury to the new leaves!

            That's about it, until, a number of years later, you might see that the clump is blooming less, or only near the edge, or that it is a bit too wide for its location. Then you might want to go out when the plants are dormant, in summer, and either remove some corms near the edges to reduce the clump size, or actually dig the whole thing up and replant corms.

            Either way, you will have some corms to plant elsewhere or to share. Full sized corms are 2-3 inches across and will probably bloom the following spring. Smaller ones (cormlets) will take 2 or more years to bloom. If you dig the whole clump, you will probably have more corms than you know what to do with, and may want to discard the smaller ones. (Or maybe go into the Watsonia corm business.)

            One more tip. You can grow Watsonias in a big pot, say 15 inches across for a group of corms, but in a pot you will need to give them a bit more care. From the time the plants start to grow to when blooms are starting to fade, fertilize lightly from time to time, and water regularly. You don't want the mix to be soggy, but unless rain is keeping it wet, water when the top inch is dry.

Learn about 49 more easy, beautiful garden flowers in Wildly Successful Plants: Northern California.

 


Late Blight Sample Sent for Analysis

I sent my first specimen of tomato/potato late blight off for analysis this week. I found symptoms on a purple potato that grows in the City College of SF garden. I sent it to a lab in Oregon, as I described in my March 2nd post, to become a part of the usablight.org project. They want to know which "clonal lines" of this disease organism are causing the disease in various parts of the country. For my part, I want to know which ones we have here in the Bay Area. Once we find that out, we will be better able to predict which tomato or potato varieties might resist the disease in our region.

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This is the photo of the specimen I sent to the usablight.org lab. They want us to send leaves that are still partly green, like these, but clearly infected. The whitish stuff on the surfaces is, I hope, spores of late blght.

If you want to take part in this survey and find out more about your particular strain, or, more correctly, clonal line, of late blight, go to usablight.org and learn how to submit samples. The first step is to have them send you a copy of the permit that will let you ship your disease samples across state lines to be tested in a lab in Oregon. Do this soon, so you will have the permit in hand when late blight rears its ugly head in your garden.

If you have overwintering potatoes, you might see late blight soon. In last year's tomato trial, the disease showed up at the end of July. Gardens with cool, damp, foggy weather are more likely to be affected by this disease. Spores fly through the air from other infected plants, land on your plants, and begin to grow. Please see the March 11, 2012 post for more details.


April 14th Plant Sale will Have Late Blight Resistant Tomatoes

I just learned that the San Mateo/San Francisco Master Gardeners will offer three late blight resistant tomato varieties at their spring tomato and pepper plant sale on Saturday April 14th, 9:00am-1:00pm, rain or shine.

The sale will be held at the Elks Lodge, 229 West 20th Avenue, San Mateo. They will have 'Defiant PhR', 'Mountain Magic', and 'Golden Sweet' and will also have lots of other tomato and pepper varieties, starts of popular herbs, and gently used gardening books.Go early for the best selection of blight resistant tomatoes.

I know if you live in SF, it's a slog. If you don't ordinarily drive, it may be worth carpooling down or renting a carshare for a chance at some tomatoes that stand a chance against late blight.Parking for the sale is free.

For more information about the sale, call 650-726-9059 Ext. 107, Mon & Thurs, 9:30am-4:30pm or go towww.ucanr.org/sites/MGsSMSF/Special_events/Tomato_Sale.


Battling Tomato Late Blight

 Note to readers: I wrote this to add to information in the SF Chronicle Article that will appear in the print version of the paper on March 4, 2012. The article will not be availabe on sfgate.com until Monday, March 5th, so if you are here on Saturday or Sunday, and want to find out what is in the original Chronicle article, check back on sfgate.com on or after Monday.

Are you losing tomato plants to tomato late blight? This disease has been killing tomato and potato plants in the Bay Area for several years, and I have been trying to find tomato varieties that will resist it. I reported last year’s trial in the SF Chronicle and on sfgate.com. (If you haven't seen that articlet yet, you can find it at http://www.sfgate.com/columns/goldengategardener/archive/ .) In that article, I promised more details here, in my blog, so here they are. (Note: If you are an expert reading this post, and have corrections or more information to offer, please comment or send me an email through my website at pampeirce.com.)

            This is a long post, so I will tell you what is in it here at the beginning. The first section explains what late blight is, with photos of symptoms. The second section is a brief explanation of ways to try to reduce late blight damage in your garden. Section 3 tells you how to set up a tomato variety trial yourself, with photos to show you how we did it. The fourth section includes some details about genetic resistance to late blight among available tomato varieties, with photos of the fruits of the ones that succeeded in the 2011 trial. The fifth section tells you how to send samples of your blight to the website www.usablight.org in order to identify the clonal line(s) of the blight present in your garden. Then, finally, at the end of this post, is the list of varieties that also appears in the sfgate.com column, showing you which I trialed in 2009 and 2011, plus a few new varieties that I haven't yet trialed.

What is tomato late blight?

            Tomato late blight is caused by the oomycete Phytophthora infestans. (Oomycetes are organisms that used to be called “water molds.”) The disease-causing organism is in the same genus as the one that causes sudden oak death, Phytophthora ramorum, though the two diseases infect different groups of plants.

            “Tomato late blight” is a common name. Because the same organism also infects potato plants, it is sometimes called “potato late blight” or even “tomato and potato late blight.” It can also infect petunias, which are in the same plant family; though I have never heard it called “petunia late blight.”

            The words “late blight” are found in the common names of other plant diseases that are caused by different disease organisms. For example there is “celery late blight,” which is caused by the fungus Septoria apii. (Just one more example of why it is important to know the scientific name of a living creature, even if you commonly use the common name.)

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The first symptoms are darkened areas, briefly topped with white fuzz. This lesion is on a potato leaf.

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If a plant is sucseptible, lesions start to appear all over and spread, killing leaflets, whole leaves, and stems. If fruit has formed, it soon has greasy, brown "shoulders." If it ripens at all it wil have poor flavor.

            The tomato disease that causes our grief is known as a “late” blight because the symptoms typically show up only when the plant is mature, the fruit has set, maybe even some has begun to ripen. (By the time it shows up, we have usually had a couple of months to tend the plants and eagerly monitor the progress of setting fruit, so our disappointment is even deeper than had the disease struck early, before we had developing fruits to mourn.) The late onset happens because the mild temperature and moist air that encourages the spores to grow is likely to occur later in the summer, and also because as infections start to occur, there are more spores to blow about in the air and spread the disease.

            It’s important to know that the spores are not in the soil, but are blown in the wind from plant to plant, from as far as several miles away. They also are not carried in seed.

            It seems that we are fortunate, if that is possible, considering the damage this disease causes if it strikes, because so far, we have only asexual zoospores in our part of the world. These zoospores do not survive in soil, only in living or recently living susceptible plants. Because of this, we can get most of the spores out of our gardens by making sure we have no living plants that can get the blight in our gardens for four months in the winter. In our community garden, we remove all living and dead material from tomato, potato, petunia, and wild solanums (nightshades) from the garden in November through March. (If you do this, you also have to watch for and remove volunteer potatoes that can come up in winter and sometimes get late blight during a warm spell in winter and early spring.) While removing susceptible plants in winter can reduce the number of spores around in summer, it can’t, of course prevent new spores from blowing in, so you still may find the disease in your garden, but at least it isn’t a certainty.

            (If the form of the organism necessary for sexual reproduction were to find its way here, we could have sexually produced oospores here that would survive in soil and live longer than the asexual zoospores. Fortunately, there is no sign of this having happened or immediate expectation that it will.)

 Protecting Tomato Plants from Late Blight

            To protect plants from this disease, gardeners try to keep leaves dry, shelter plants from spore-bearing breezes, or spray them with a protective substance. In the Northwest, tomatoes are often grown under row cover (polyester fabric that lets most light through) or plastic hoop houses to keep rain off. In the Bay Area, we aren’t likely to have rain in summer. Our high humidity can provide enough moisture for the spores to germinate, but you may as well avoid wetting the leaves when you water, and you can try putting plants under cover if you like.

            Fungicides based on copper compounds and the fungicide Serenade are both registered to prevent tomato late blight and are permitted to organic farmers. Either kind of fungicide needs to be sprayed starting from the time you set out your transplants, and continued all season following label instructions, which are to spray more or less weekly. If they are used heavily, copper compounds can increase the copper content of soil so much that plants grow less well, so perhaps they aren’t the best idea. I did try spraying a copper fungicide one year. I found it a lot of work to spray my small planting so many times—and the plants still got late blight.

            I haven’t tried Serenade for late blight yet. It is based on the harmless soil bacterium Bacillus subtilis, and it is worth a try if you don’t mind the spraying. (I was able to prevent onion downy mildew from overtaking my perennial “walking onions” by spraying them with Serenade, so I do know that it works against that disease--another one listed on its label.)

 Looking for Resistance to Tomato Late Blight

            In addition to the winter clean up, which is basic to prevention, I have been trialing varieties that might stand up to this disease. I would very much like to grow my favorites, such as ‘Cherokee Purple’ or ‘Old German’ heirloom varieties, but they get late blight. I am looking for varieties that are resistant to late blight because I’d rather have some tomatoes for sure than spend all my time spraying or covering my plants and likely still losing them to the disease.

            The history of my tomato variety trials is in my sfgate article, (http://www.sfgate.com/columns/goldengategardener/archive/ ) along with a summary of how to do such a trial. Here are more detailed instructions for those who might want to carry out a trial.

            To do a trial, you need one or more experimental varieties (ones you have some reason to believe will resist the blight) and one control variety (one you know will get the blight). The control variety is there to prove that the disease was present in your garden, because if it wasn’t, you didn’t prove the experimental ones would resist it. I have been using ‘Celebrity’ as a control plant. It is an early hybrid that has short plants and resistance to quite a few diseases, though not to tomato late blight. You could choose another control, or could duplicate my choice to stay as close as possible to experiments that have been done already.

            The more plants of each variety you can use, the better, since you don’t want an accident, such as a broken stem or a virus attack to wipe out your one plant of a particular variety, and you want to know that your result is true in more than one plant (though because hybrids are more or less identical, what is true of one plant is more likely to be true of another than if you are groiwn heirlooms). I try to have at least 2 plants of each variety; use more if you have lots of space.

            Now you will have two goals. The first is to give all of the varieties in your trial as close as possible to the same conditions, so that resistance or susceptibility to late blight is the only difference. If you can’t treat them exactly the same (for example, you can’t grow them in exactly the same spot in the same year) you will randomize that aspect of their conditions. Your second goal is to keep track of what happened and record it. This you will do by making sure you know which plant is which and by recording whether the blight struck each plant over the course of the growing season.

            Start seeds for all of the varieties in your experiment on the same day, to ensure that they will be at the same age. Label each kind with a tag that gives the date you planted the seed and the name of the variety. When they have a couple of true leaves, pot them all into individual 4” pots on the same day. Make sure each 4” pot has a label with the date of planting, (date of potting up is optional) and the name of the variety. Don’t lose track of your varieties!

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On planting day, all of the plants are the same age and have been treated the same as they grew. Each pot includes a label.

            Choose a place to plant your experiment. Give the plants adequate space. We had 3 rows of 4 plants each in 2012. The plants were about 18” apart, the rows 3’ apart. Prepare the soil of the entire area in the same way. That is, spread any organic amendment or fertilizer evenly and then dig it in. If you plan to set up a drip system, set it up over the entire bed so that all the plants will be evenly watered by it. We used a half-inch tubing down the long side of the bed and quarter inch drip line with emitters every 6 inches. We ran two of the emitter lines along each planted row, one on each side of the plants.

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Spread organic soil amendment and any fertilizers you plan to use evenly on the bed and turn soil once to dig them in. Shown digging is David Elhami.

            Wait until mid-April or early May to plant out your seedlings, so the air and soil have warmed nicely. On the day you plant, have handy a hole-punch, twist-tie, paper and pencil. Before you plant, randomize your planting, as follows:

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Essential for setting up a tomato variety trial are hand-operated single-hole punches and twist-tie, for attaching labels to individual plants.

            Choose the seedlings you are going to plant and write the name of each on a small piece of paper. If you have two of each variety, make two paper names for that variety. Fold all of the papers up to conceal the names and draw names at random. (I like to draw them from a garden hat as a sort of joke, but you can draw them from whatever container strikes your fancy.)

            Make a map on a note pad. Start at one corner and make x’s to mark where the plants will be. Start in one corner, and as you draw names, write them on the map—progressing across the row and starting on the next row until you reach the end. With your randomized planting, you will reduce the chance that differences from one side of a bed to another, such as shade or wind patterns will throw off your results.

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This photo shows the making of the randomly arranged map. I draw variety names from an actual hat, just for fun, but you could use any container. Shown, left to right, are Donna Mandel, Pam Peirce, and Ken Jacobs.

            Now plant the tomatoes in the arrangement described on your map. As you plant each one, use the hole-punch to punch a hole in the label and use a piece of twist-tie to fasten the label to the main stem of the plant. be careful not to make it too tight. You want room for the stem to get a little thicker without being strangled.

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A labeled plant, with the label attached to the main stem. Make sure the twist tie is loose, so the stem can thicken a bit before you move the label higher on the growing plant. Note driplines on either side of the row.

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Here is the entire planting on the first day, April 16, 2011.

            Water well when all of the plants are in the ground, and water as you would tomatoes normally from then on. Probably best not to sprinkle water on the plants after the first day, but on that day it can reduce the chance of wilting.

            As the summer progresses, you will have three goals: 1. Keeping track of which variety is which, 2. Supporting your plants, and 3. Recording what happens vis a vis late blight.

            In order to keep track of the varieties, every 2 or 3 weeks we removed the hole-punched labels and moved them higher on the plant. We were careful that they were on a main branch, so it would remain clear which plant each was on, and so that we didn’t lose track of them when a small branch or leaf died. Of course we did have the map we made as a backup, but is nice to be able to see which plant is which at a glance.

            In last year’s trial, we supported the plants using the chainlink fence that was at one side of the bed, tall bamboo stakes and jute twine. We tied the twine to the fence, then wrapped it around stakes along each tomato row, then tied it to a stake at the end away from the fence. We used two pieces of twine per row, one on each side of the plants. As the plants grew, we used more twine at higher levels.

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A section of a row showing how two lengths of twine are used, one on each side, and how it is wrapped aroung stakes at intervals along the row to support the plants. This was shot on May 18th, 2011.

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Here is the planting on July 13, 2011. Nice tall green plants, but two weeks later, the damage had begun.

            Periodically, we observed to see whether late blight had appeared. We didn’t stick to a strictly regular schedule, since we weren’t interested in the exact progression of the disease, but did check every 3-4 weeks, and were able to tell which plants died first and which had fruit set, etc.

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Here I am, on August 11, 2011, recording relative damage to the plants. Note the plant label, which has been moved higher on the plant twice to make identification fast. The plant with the label is 'Golden Sweet'. The still-green plant behind me is 'Defiant PhR'.

            Need I say that, other than watering at ground level to keep leaves dry, an ordinary precaution I would always take when growing tomatoes, I didn’t take any measures to prevent or avoid late blight? I didn’t put them under cover or spray them with anything. In fact, I grew the trials in locations where late blight was definitely a problem in the previous year, just to be sure my experimental varieties had something to resist.

The Genetics of Tomato Late Blight Resistance

            There are two aspects of genetics that affect resistance. I am not going to be able to explain them in great detail here, but here are a few facts. The first aspect is the genes that provide the tomato variety with resistance.

            In last year’s trial, I grew 4 varieties I obtained from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Rob Johnston, the founder of that seed company, told me that two, ‘Golden Sweet’ and ‘Plum Regal’ had one gene that provided resistance to late blight, and they were heterozygous for that gene. That is, it was on only one chromosome of a pair. The other two varieties, ‘Mountain Magic’ and ‘Defiant PhR’ had two genes that provide resistance. They are heterozygous for these genes, meaning that each of them appears on only one chromosome of a pair.

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'Golden Sweet' died in my USF planting, but I did get fruit in my community garden, in a warmer microclimate, and where we have been taking out susceptible plants in winter to reduce the number of spores in the garden. The fruits are small, but were indeed sweet.

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'Mountain Magic' was alive, with some damage, at the end of my USF planting. It set some fruit there, but only ripened a few of the fruits it set. In my community garden, it ripened plentiful fruit. The fruit is about 1 1/2 inches in diameter and has an average flavor.If you look carefully, you will see a couple of brown stems, lost to late blight damage.

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'Defiant PhR' had only minor damage at the USF plantng, but didn't set fruit. However, in my community garden, the one plant had 9 pounds of fruit. Size varied, but the biggest was over 3 inches across. This is a beefsteak-type, meaty fruit, with good, though not excellent flavor.

            In my trial, the ones that were heterozygous for two resistance-endowing genes fared better than the ones that had only one of them. Johnston says when varieties have been bred that are homozygous for these genes, that is, have them on both copies of a chromosome pair, resistance should be even better.

            I don’t have details about the genetic reasons for resistance of other varieties, such as ‘Juliet’ or ‘Legend’. The only other fact I can relay is that some wild tomato types have resistance through different mechanisms than the above. Examples are some cherry tomatoes and currant tomato, which is a different species than most tomatoes.

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In 2011, 'Juliet' died at USF, but in 2009 and 2010, it produced fruit in trials in my community garden. This fruit is smaller than an average past tomato, but larger than a plum tomato. Flavor is good, not great, but production is very good.

            The second genetic aspect, the other end of the resistance equation, is that the late blight organism is not genetically uniform. The correct term for the variations are “clonal lines.” They are clonal because they reproduce asexually, thus they are identical to their parent organisms. Why are there different ones? Presumably due to mutations that appear from time to time. There have been 24 clonal lineages in the US, but some may have died out. In any given year, there may be 4 or 5 active ones.

            I have made slow progress on tying tomato variety resistance to clonal lines of the late blight organism. I do know that ‘Legend’ resists US3 and US11. And I know these aren’t the clonal lines we have, because ‘Legend’, touted as a breakthrough in late blight resistance, dies first in my trials.

 What Clonal Lines do We Have?

            When I realized that resistant varieties may have resistance to specific clonal lines of late blight, I saw the importance of finding out which clonal lines we have in the Bay Area. Until recently, I was having difficulty finding this out. The breakthrough this year is locating the website www.usablight.org . This USDA-funded project is a national consortium of late blight researchers. They don’t know what clonal lines we have, but they want to know!

            You can help find out by submitting samples of your infected plants. Do this by going to the website and clicking on “reporting outbreaks,” then on “first time registration.” Register now so you will be sent a copy of the APHIS permit you will need in order to submit samples, since they will be shipped across state lines, to a lab in Oregon. Once you have the permit, you will be able to print copies of it to include with your samples. They prefer leaflets that have blackened lesions, but which have not yet wilted, and would like at least five examples in a sample. You register your sample online, so you will get a sample number to write on the sample bag before you send it, and can then use that number to track your results. You also print out a sample submission form to include with your sample, and write the sample number on that too.

            Full directions are on the website. I encourage you to look and register now, so you will be ready when the disease shows up.

A List of Tomato Varieties You Might Like to Try

            Here is a list of varieties I have trialed, plus a few I haven’t yet, as reported in my Chronicle/SFGate column, follows. (See that article at http://www.sfgate.com/columns/goldengategardener/archive/ for full trial results.) My best results so far have been with ‘Juliet’, ‘Defiant PhR’, ‘Mountain Magic’ and, in a warmer SF microclimate, with ‘Golden Sweet’. As seed sources for varieties listed below, start with Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Totally Tomatoes.

Note: Numbers (i.e. “70-75) indicate days from transplanting to first ripe fruit under normal conditions, though San Francisco plants may be slower. Det=Determinate or short plant. Ind=Indeterminate, or tall plant. These varieties are listed in order of fruit size—smaller to larger. For more information, such as flavor and other disease resistance, see seed catalogs.

*in my 2009 trial, **in my 2011 trial, ***in both trials

*Currant tomato—70-75, Ind, fruits under ½”, avail in red, yellow, and white. This is Solanum pimpinellifolium, a different tomato species that has some resistance.

*Matt’s Wild Cherry—60, Det, fruits marble-sized, red, some resistance.

*Tommy Toe—70, Ind, ½ -1” round red, fruit, some resistance

*Koralik—61, Det, 1” fruit, round red, some resistance

Red Pearl—58, Ind, 1 oz. oval fruit, said to have intermediate resistance

**Golden Sweet F1—60, Ind, oval, grape-sized yellow fruit, moderate resistance

**Plum Regal F1—68, Det, 4 oz., oval, red fruit, moderate resistance

***Juliet F1—60, Ind, 1½-2 oz. oval, red fruit, in clusters, moderate to good resistance

**Mountain Magic F1—66, Ind, 2 oz., red fruit in large trusses, good resistance

**Defiant PhR F1—70, Det, 5-7 oz. round, red fruit, good resistance

***Legend—70, Det, 4-5 inch, round, red fruit, poor resistance in my trials.

Ferline F1— Ind, 5 oz., round, red fruit, listed as “tolerant” of late blight.

Old Brooks--70, Ind, large fruited, said to have “superior” resistance

Please do write me if you have questions or any results to report. You can send me email at home@sfchronicle.com or write a comment into this blog.