Tomatoes, potatoes, peppers — oh my!

Is there a vegetable garden out there without tomatoes?

You would think tomatoes were the fountain of youth, we have such passion for them. Whenever I ask gardeners whether they grow any food, even the most committed flower gardeners reply "tomatoes."

Well, I refuse to drown you in saucy tomato talk. Instead, honoring the tomato's origins in the Americas, I'm sharing tidbits about some other uniquely American vegetables that have more or less changed the diet of people everywhere, just like the tomato. And they're all veggies we can grow in our home gardens.

The potato — the same family — is easily one of the most widely eaten plants. It had its origin in the mountains of South America and because it was easily grown in cooler temperatures, it became popular in Northern Europe. It has become the world's fourth-most important food source. Thus we have the french fry, English fish 'n' chips and 100-proof vodka. One of my favorite potatoes is the banana fingerling, a dense, buttery potato excellent for sautéing. It's usually available at our Growers and Crafters Market.

Potatoes are notorious for their susceptibility to blight. Late blight (Phytophthora infestans) arrived in Ireland in the middle of the 19th century and starvation and emigration cut the population in half. It also inspired the Irish immigration to the U.S. Michael Pollan tells more amazing potato stories in his book, "The Botany of Desire," about how plants have evolved and thrived through human efforts.

Late blight isn't much of a problem in the Rogue Valley. To propagate, this fungus needs two days of 75 percent humidity during the growing season. I can't imagine that level of humidity here, but as you move north it becomes an increasing possibility. We can experience early blight (Alternaria solani), which is less-killing. It looks like black spots on the leaves.

Fungus organisms are very difficult to eradicate, which is why all parts of affected plants should always be put in the trash, not the compost. It's also why you should not let volunteer, or compost-sprouted potatoes or tomatoes survive. Crop rotation (two to three years) is another control.

Another South American world-changer is the chili pepper, the source of all the peppers, sweet and hot, large and small. Botanist W. Hardy Eshbaugh, who researched the pepper for 30 years, thinks they've been in cultivation since 5000 B.C. That's 7,000 years of growing, an indication that humans everywhere have a fondness for the hot and spicy.

Hot peppers are second-most-grown vegetables, according to my informal survey of part-time of kitchen gardeners. I do know a few — mostly male — gardeners who grow several varieties with at least as much passion as tomato fiends, er, I mean friends.

The plant definitely has a split personality. Besides creating the foundation for an exciting cuisine, another use is as a pain killer. When cooking with hot peppers, use gloves to de-vein and remove seeds. Keep your hands away from your eyes. Pepper spray is a deterrent for good reason — it burns.

It's hard to believe the charming sweet pepper emerged from the hot varieties. Like I said, a split personality.

All of these plants are related, members of the Solanaceae family. The grouping includes eggplant (origin China or India), which also grows well here. Yet another Valley favorite is family member petunia, which blooms reliably all summer.

That segue from vegetables to flowers brings us to the American Association of University Women garden tour. If you want to see some reliably lovely gardens with plants from many families, don't miss this tour: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, June 7. Tickets are $15 and available at Grange Co-op in Ashland and south Medford, and at Paddington Station in Ashland. The funds raised go to support scholarships for Southern Oregon University students. After attending this year's annual luncheon and listening to scholarship winners speak, I can attest that the money goes to support a worthy cause.

And keep your eyes peeled — you'll probably see some healthy tomatoes in those gardens.

Althea Godfrey is gardening editor for HomeLife magazine. Reach her at

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