A Tomato's Story Revealed

When Chef Molly Beverly partnered with us to grow Prescott Heirloom Tomatoes last summer, she also became this tomato’s newest advocate and researcher. And in doing so, she brought us an entirely new understanding of this regional treasure.

Molly lives and gardens in Chino Valley AZ, just north of Prescott, and is also the chair of Slow Food Prescott.  When she learned NS/S seed stocks were low for this variety, she wanted to use her massive garden to grow more seed, with the ulterior motive of making this variety widely available in Prescott once again.  And she did, handing out tomato starts and seeds at the farmers’ market and beyond. She also returned a lot of seed to NS/S so that we can make it available again to the public.  But that’s just the start of the story …

 Though it is part of the NS/S seed collection, we had minimal information about this tomato variety. We knew only that a Prescott family had grown it there for many years.  This was not enough for Molly, so she went to work unraveling this tomato’s past.  Her local connections helped.  While giving away tomato seedlings at the local farmers’ market, conversation with an old friend sent her to meet the daughter of John Upton Hays.  Hays was a former AZ state Senator who died in 2016, but his daughter Becky still lives and gardens at the Hays Ranch in Peeples Valley.  Becky told Molly how her father loved this tomato and grew it for 50 years, also saving seed and distributing plants where he could.  Becky said that donating the seed to NS/S was just “the kind of thing he would do”.  So it looked like Molly had uncovered the first part of the mystery, but she wasn’t done yet.  She wanted to know where John Hays got the seed to begin with.  Becky pulled out a plastic medicine bottle filled with tomato seed and told Molly “Dr. Bralliar of Wickenburg developed these tomatoes and many other plants for our arid environment.  He was the first medical doctor in Wickenburg and a good friend of my dad’s”.

So Molly next ventured south to Wickenburg, leaving the high desert for the land of saguaros.  She interviewed two Wickenburg residents who confirmed that Dr. Floyd Boynton Bralliar kept a large bowl of these tomatoes on the counter in his office, and distributed seed and plants widely.  In addition, his father, Dr. Floyd Burton Bralliar, was an educator and scientist with a doctoral degree in agricultural biology, who taught at an agricultural college in Tennessee for many years and specialized in plant breeding and testing.  The younger Bralliar apparently inherited this interest in plants as he was well-known in Wickenburg for his expertise with flowers, landscaping, and vegetable gardening.  

So the Bralliar family seems to be the likeliest origin for this particular tomato variety.  On reporting all this to NS/S, Molly suggested we should change the tomato’s name to the Bralliar tomato.  We decided, however, to make the change to the new name: Wickenburg-Prescott Heirloom Tomato, to honor all the lovers, growers, and seed savers of this tomato, from the Bralliars to Senator Hays to Molly Beverly.  All have played important roles in bringing this tomato to gardeners of the region.

Recognizing the Wickenburg connection to this variety also tells us that it is more versatile than we had previously thought, being adapted not only to high desert Prescott but also to Wickenburg which is of a similar elevation to Tucson.  And Molly’s chefly assessment of it is that it has many characteristics of plum tomatoes “with dense flesh and no belly-button core”.  Also , “not too sweet or too sour but extraordinarily balanced and actually fulsome delicious.”   These smallish gems are great for fresh eating and also make a rich sauce.  Perhaps this tomato is one you will want to add to your garden … if you do, SAVE THE SEEDS and share and plant it again and again, and you can become another of the stewards of this wonderful fruit!

*Final note: Not only is Molly a chef, historian/researcher, and farmer, she’s also a writer.  She wrote an earlier version of this story which appeared in 5enses magazine, from which I have liberally stolen to write this piece.  Thanks again Molly!