MORGANTOWN – Thanks to the work of retired West Virginia University professor Mannon Gallegly, West Virginians have a sweet, juicy way to celebrate the Mountain State’s sesquicentennial this year.
Starting next month, university officials will mail out free seed packets of Gallegly’s “West Virginia 63,” the blight-resistant variety of tomato unveiled in 1963 for the 100th anniversary of the state’s founding.
Retired since 1986 from WVU’s Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, the 89-year-old Arkansas native still digs tomatoes.
According to a profile by Jake Stump in the latest edition of West Virginia University Alumni Magazine, Gallegly still spends his days picking tomatoes, studying their seeds and working to come up with better – hardier, more delicious – varieties.
The “63” has its roots in 1949. Gallegly had just earned his Ph.D. in plant pathology from the University of Wisconsin and accepted a job as an assistant professor in Morgantown. Among his non-classroom tasks: researching tomato blight and other deadly vegetable diseases.
Blight, which creates brown spots or lesions on the tomato’s stem as well as green or brown patches on its leaves as well as a white fungal growth – is what wiped out Ireland’s potato crops starting in 1845 and led to that nation’s infamous famine.
“This was the disease farmers and gardeners feared most,” Gallegly told the magazine.
Starting in the summer of 1950, Gallegly began planting seeds he’d collected from all kinds of potato and tomato varieties. His plots were on land outside the state prison in Huttonsville where the warden let the university use land and assigned inmates to tend to the plants.
When blight set in, Gallegly took note of the wild tomato varieties that survived and then set to work in the university’s greenhouse. Thirteen years later, he’d come up with a tomato that blight couldn’t touch – and that delivered in the taste department, too.
“It’s a good canning tomato and a good slicing tomato for the table,” Gallegly explained in the magazine article. “A lot of people just eat slices of the tomato between two pieces of bread. That’s the way I eat ‘em.”
Now WVU officials say the free seeds – one packet per household while supplies last – will be available to the gardening public starting March 4.
Those interested are asked to send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to:
P.O. Box 6108
WVU Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources Unit