Tomato plant blooms right where it landed

Johnnie Barton, field technician at the Upper Colorado Environmental Plant Center, stands next to a “volunteer” tomato plant in the greenhouse at the center. The single plant survived the winter months and is now thriving and bearing fruit. Courtesy Photo

MEEKER | A batch of fringed sagebrush seedlings grace a table in the greenhouse at the Upper Colorado Environmental Plant Center (UCEPC), located on the mesa south of Meeker. The UCEPC focuses the majority of its attention on growing and testing seed varieties of native plants—mostly grasses and shrubs—but this year a rogue seed found its way into a patch of earth in the greenhouse. Without water or cultivation, that solitary seed took root over the winter, sprouted, and wasn’t discovered until Plant Center employees went into the greenhouse to clean up in preparation for spring planting. No one is sure how the seed got there, or how it survived—and thrived—all winter on its own, but it’s definitely a tomato plant.

Once the rogue tomato was discovered and recognized, tucked away in a corner of the greenhouse, plant center field technician Johnnie Barton started watering it. The plant is now as tall as the greenhouse roof, 12-14 feet, 4-6 feet across, and covered with flowers and full-sized tomatoes in varying shades of red and green. It’s so large it’s hard to believe it’s a single plant.

“I have no answers,” said farm foreman Brandon Sanders. “It looks like the few we planted in pots, but they didn’t make it.”

While the rogue tomato continues to flourish, the Plant Center is gearing up for another season of work. On its 269 acres of land, they test varieties of native seeds for viability in different types of soil and ranges. Once a seed variety has proven itself in real life applications, it can be “released” to commercial growers for use by contractors like the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service for restoration and reclamation projects.

It can take 20 to 30 years to develop a plant for commercial release. The UCEPC has released 18 plants.

“When you drive along the highway and see these reseeded places, that came from us,” said Plant Manager Steve Parr. “Primarily our focus is on reclamation materials.”

For local residents doing landscaping who want to know what variety of grasses or shrubs to plant to maintain the native landscape, the staff at the Plant Center can answer those questions.

The Plant Center is a nonprofit organization established in 1975 organized by the Douglas Creek and White River Soil Conservation districts. It’s one of 26 similar centers in the United States.