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The Coastal Gardener: The legend of O.C.'s wild tomatoes

April 01, 2011|By Ron Vanderhoff
  • A portion of the area known as Tomato Springs. Supposedly, tomatoes once grew wild in the area. It is also the site of one of Orange County's bloodiest gunfights.
A portion of the area known as Tomato Springs. Supposedly,… (Courtesy Ron Vanderhoff )

I often feel sorry for my daughter. But at least she'll have plenty of stories to tell her children.

About five years ago, I recall doing my best to convince her to come with me on an all-day, far-fetched attempt to locate the last wild tomatoes in Orange County.

That's right, wild tomatoes — in the hills of Orange County. This is a true story.

First, a little background. In the summer of 1769, the first European expedition in California had reached Orange County. The hot, dry conditions had left the party precariously short of water.

Fortunately, a Spaniard in the expedition by the name of Padre Gomez discovered a spring in what is now the East Irvine area, providing the party with a welcome source of fresh water.

For the next few days the group camped near the life-sustaining springs, and the site was soon called the "Spring of Padre Gomez." About 100 years later, the area was given a new name, "Tomato Springs," due to the abundance of wild tomatoes that were supposedly growing in the area, the progeny of previous visitors.

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Today, the general area that was once the Spring of Padre Gomez and then Tomato Springs, has been renamed again, this time by The Irvine Co. "Portola Springs" is a far more marketing-savvy title, especially to prospective new homeowners.

Everyone who has grown tomatoes knows how easily they grow from seed. Who hasn't had little tomatoes sprouting in random spots, remnants from some prior years' fruit? Long lived and hard to kill, the seeds even travel from place to place in planting mix or in load of topsoil.

Now, to that summer day a few years ago. What a romantic idea … wild tomatoes still persisting somewhere in Orange County, current-day survivors of a handful of plants grown in the 1800s by some of our area's earliest pioneers.

If I could find even just one plant and liberate a fruit from it, I could rediscover Orange County's long lost tomato. What a great idea. The Valencia orange, the namesake of Orange County, would have a new rival — the tomato. A true Orange County heirloom. Nurseries would propagate it; locals would cherish it. Elementary schools would hold assemblies in its honor. At dinner tables throughout the county, parents would give history lessons, using this tomato as the star.

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