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Gardening: Plants for optimum health

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

If good nutrition is on your radar screen and you’re looking for an interesting book to read, pick up a copy of “Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health” by Jo Robinson (Little Brown, $16). I’m still working on my plant and seed list for spring and there’s great information on tomatoes in this read that will help me make my decisions. I choose my tomato varieties based on flavor and production, but I’m also interested in nutrition.

While you may be tempted to pooh-pooh Robinson’s findings regarding the nutritional value of tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables, her book contains a whopping 25-page list of scientific references and information on how to access them.

Though we think of the tomato as a vegetable, it’s actually a fruit. Fruits or vegetables that contain seeds or a pit are truly fruits. So beefsteak tomatoes are really ginormous berries. When discovered in South America, they were tiny berries. Those huge heirloom tomatoes didn’t just happen — for hundreds of years, gardeners have been saving seeds of plants that produced bigger “fruit.” But when it comes to nutrition, size matters — smaller is better. The tiny, current-sized “Matt’s Wild Cherry” tomato I grow from seed has a much higher lycopene count than the much heralded heirloom “Brandywine.”

Color also matters. Dark red tomatoes rank at the top of the nutrition list. Yellow, white and green don’t come close. The ‘Black Cherry’ cherry tomato is one of Robinson’s top picks, so hopefully other black tomatoes rank right up there. “Black from Tula” and “Japanese Black Trifle” are already on my “must grow” list.

Lycopene, the red pigment and major carotenoid in tomatoes, has the antioxidant capacity of almost twice that of much the touted beta-carotene and, if taken in large amounts, may decrease the incidence of certain cancers, coronary heart diseases and cataracts.

Burpee currently has two lycopene-rich tomato varieties available as seed and plants. “Tasti Lee” produces 6- to 9-inch fruits that are flavorful and loaded with lycopene — up to 40 percent more than other varieties. Burpee “Health Kick” is a 4-ounce red determinate saladette-size tomato that contains 50 percent more lycopene and is great for salads.

While researching for this article on the Internet, I read about a new study that indicates tetra-cis-lycopene in orange tomatoes is absorbed more efficiently than the trans-lycopene in deep-red tomatoes. I’m going to hedge my bets and add a Sun Gold tomato to my list.

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and a Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question, go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at