Landscape-Horticulture program keeps local family history growing | St. Clair College
Wednesday, September 1, 2021
The Rita tomato, grown in St. Clair College's greenhouse.
The Rita tomato, grown in St. Clair College's greenhouse.

Rita Infanti believes Sandy MacDonald and the Landscape Horticulture program at St. Clair have helped keep a piece of her family history alive.

Many years ago, Infanti's paternal uncle Jeremiah brought seeds for a unique type of tomato over to Canada from the Friuli region of Italy. The family continued to grow these massive tomatoes, weighing up to three pounds each, in the Windsor-Essex region for decades.

"My Uncle Jerry (Jeremiah) originally had the seeds and grew the plants, then he gave them to my father," Infanti said. "My brother-in-law then took over growing the plants and distributing them to the families for their gardens. After my husband passed away, I kept up a really big garden for a year or two but I just couldn't keep that up."

A chance encounter with St. Clair Horticulture professor Sandy MacDonald at the College's Spring Garden Centre led to a conversation about the type of tomato Infanti's family grew and how she struggled to keep the plant thriving in her garden.

"He asked me how many seeds I had. I said 14, so he asked for seven," Infanti laughed. "So, I gave them seven and they started to grow them in the greenhouse. And every year since I would go to the college, pick up some plants and put them in my garden."

MacDonald said it was an interesting challenge for professors and students to collaborate to inbreed this type of tomato and keep it alive for seven years. MacDonald and his team at St. Clair searched for the proper nomenclature for this type of tomato but could not find a relative closer than the oxheart tomato. So, they gave them a nickname, Rita Tomatoes.

"The qualities of the 'Rita' tomatoes are quite unique. One quality is there are not a lot of seeds inside," MacDonald said. "This is maybe one of the main reasons why our friend Rita was unable to keep many seeds for the future, because they naturally don't produce that many."

While the Rita has excellent eating qualities and has a very traditional tomato flavor, it is the sheer size of the tomatoes which are their most notable feature.

"We weighed one this week at almost 950 grams. It was huge," MacDonald said. "It is typical for the first couple of fruit that develop to be large. In the late summer or fall, the fruit which are higher on the plant generally become smaller as the season goes on. But the first few on the plant are monsters. So, it could be fun for home gardeners to try out."

Infanti said she is proud to give the students of St. Clair the chance to work with such a unique plant for the past seven years while also preserving a part of her family history at the same time.

"It's good to share the good things in your life with people," Infanti said. "My Uncle Jerry would be so excited about this."

- Brett Hedges