by Marie Stofesky

Marie and her Grandpap with bushels of tomatoes

The sun is shining brightly with not one cloud in the sky casting endless heat and making it unbearable to set foot outside of your nicely air-conditioned house.   My Grandpap thrives in these conditions. He cannot wait for what most people think as excruciating heat. While we are complaining and wishing for the cool breezes of fall, he is scheming new ways to make his tomato plants growth bigger and better than last year . 

Some may call my Grandpap eccentric and others might just shake their head at him, but I call him a genius. Each year my Grandpap returns to the drawing board to create a new and improved contraption for his tomato plants . What is this contraption? Imagine a perfectly crafted shed-like structure with an expertly slanted roof. This structure is not built with bricks or wood, but with plastic tarping. This alienish greenhouse that my Grandpap builds every year appears to the average eye so simple that you may overlook its importance for growing tomatoes. My Grandpap’s silly-looking contraption encapsulates all the current knowledge about optimizing tomato growth. 

Every summer, the Santa Claus of tomatoes visits my aunts, cousins, and my family. We wake up every week to a bag of tomatoes on the front porch, and we know that Pappy’s greenhouse is hard at work fostering the perfect environment for tomatoes to grow.

I have witnessed each spring the formation of this beastly structure. But, actually never understood what it was for. I first thought it protected the tomatoes’ branches from breaking in the wind. Only recently, during my studies at the University of Pittsburgh, did I learn the greenhouse wasn’t for protection. Instead, it traps the chemical ethylene that is produced by the tomatoes, which in turn increases how fast the tomatoes ripen. Ethylene is a plant’s version of perfume, which can be spread to other plants through the air. Usually most fruits and vegetables emit small amounts of this perfume-like substance; however, fruits such as bananas, avocados, apples, and tomatoes produce more ethylene than normal that allows them to continue their ripening process after being harvested (these are called climacteric plants). 

Now why is a greenhouse such a conducive environment for tomato ripening? Tomatoes have the super power of increasing their production of ethylene in the presence of other climacteric plants. It is like a game of telephone where a chain of people whisper a phrase to the next person in the chain. Each person whispers what they hear from the first person, and at the end of the game, the last person in the chain announces the phrase. It always ends up that the phrase at the end of the telephone chain is completely different than the original phrase at the beginning of the chain. Instead of a long chain of phrase whispering, tomatoes sense the ethylene of the other tomatoes and increase their rate of ethylene production.  The end product of this telephone game of ethylene is that a tomato created by a single tomato plant is drastically different from the fruit produced by many ethylene-emitting tomatoes in a greenhouse. My Grandpap’s greenhouse contraption traps the heat from the sun and all the excess ethylene produced by the other tomatoes. This ethylene stimulates the tomato plants to accelerate their ripening process even more. 

You can’t imagine the vast number of tomatoes that my Grandpap’s small homemade greenhouse produces. It produces way too many for two grandparents. Every summer, the Santa Claus of tomatoes visits my aunts, cousins, and my family. We wake up every week to a bag of tomatoes on the front porch, and we know that Pappy’s greenhouse is hard at work fostering the perfect environment for tomatoes to grow. For the whole summer and into fall, my whole family enjoys meals upon meals centering around tomatoes.

While I enjoy spaghetti and meatballs as much as the next person, it is always a relief to know that come December we will not be eating spaghetti for weeks straight. Are you eager to be a part of my Grandpap’s gardening secret? No matter where you live, you do not need a greenhouse or excess outdoor space to capitalize on the tomato’s superpower. You can simply use a brown paper bag and a couple of unripe tomatoes, bananas, apples, or avocados. The key is to place one ripe fruit inside a closed paper bag with the other unripe fruit, which will stimulate the production of ethylene. And in no time, you will have perfectly ripe tomatoes at your fingertips.

Marie is a sophomore Biology Major on a Pre-Veterinary track at the University of Pittsburgh.  As part of her Plant Biology Course she wrote this blog reflecting on her experiences with plants and decided to share it with Plant Love Stories.  Besides writing blogs, you can catch Marie exploring the outdoors and hiking throughout Pittsburgh’s many local trails.

Photo Credits: (Top) Marie Stofesky; (Bottom) Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

by Tanisha Williams

The future Dr. Williams posing in front of her house in her Sunday best.

My earliest memories of plants are the beautiful African violets (Streptocarpus sect. Saintpaulia) my great-grandmother grew all over our two-story rowhouse in Northeast, Washington, DC. Behind the bars and security system, our little home boomed with life, love, wisdom, and flowers.

My great-grandmother, Grace Alice Hawkins, taught me just about everything and the love for plants and nature was no different. She not only showed me the wonders of plants through taking care of them in our home, we would also buy fruits, veggies, and plants from the Stadium Armory farmer’s market. My great-grandmother had a ‘green-thumb’, and would also talk and sing to her plants (smile)! I used to think that was the key to her success, but what I later learned (and why my favorite childhood foods have never tasted as good) it was her love and grace.

Tanisha and great-grandmother Grace at a neighbor's home for Christmas

My great-grandmother loved, cared for, and nurtured us all. Her African violets bloomed year-round, a constant reminder of her unwavering love. Another reminder of her love is me, the nerdy girl who loved reading, science (especially museums!), history, and plants!

That nerdy girl grew up to become the nerdy woman who completed a PhD, which I made a promise to my granny that I would do.

I now study plants from around the world for a living! I have recently settled down for a few years and decided my house needed my first-ever African violet. Wow, is it magnificent! It constantly blooms, despite my singing (smile), reminding me of the life and love my great-grandmother gave to me and so many others. I miss her dearly, but continue to feel connected to her through all the plants around me!

Tanisha with her mother and great-grandmother

Dr. Tanisha M. Williams is a botanist and plant ecologist. She is the David Burpee Postdoc Fellow in Botany at Bucknell University. She is currently using population genomics methods to understand how biogeographic barriers impact plant populations throughout the Top End of Australia and using similar methods to update the conservation status of threatened plants across Pennsylvania. She also studies how plants respond to climate change. Dr. Williams enjoys traveling, hiking, playing with her two cats, Monte and Carlo, and loves taking care of her succulent and vegetable plants. Check out Tanisha's website and follow her on twitter, @T_Marie_Wms!

Dr. Williams also launched #Black Botanists Week (website: here)! Here's an article about the campaign by Marcia Moore for The Daily Item.

by Judi Moore Latta

On Graduation to Your Future. (To Jaz)


(Three days before the murder of George Floyd)

You walked into our house carrying a potted basil plant

and I thought about Lorraine*…

Full of life and promise and hope and love

and more drama than a nation could understand.

Full of a family’s story welled up inside, straining to be released

on pages and stages, in hearts and minds.

Your basil plant was like Mama Younger’s…

Too precious to leave behind.

Too young to be forgotten.

Too sacred to be ignored.

You brought it because fumes from your stained floors were strong and it was fragile;

You brought it because surrounding space was vast and it was tiny.

You brought it because it was alive and needed attention.

You brought it because it craved sun and water, nutrients and care.

You brought it because you knew it would one day bring sweet flavor.

You have a heart that way; a gift that way; a calling that way.

You are open to speak what you see, do what you do and receive what comes.

Lorraine had prophetic vision… may you have it too.

Lorraine had language that pushed… may you have it too.

Lorraine had dreams that grew… may you have them too.

I pray that your plant will flourish and charge the universe …

and so will you.

Jazmine's basil plant

*Lorraine Hansberry – (May 19, 1930 – January 12, 1965)

She died at age 34.

(About her, Nina Simone wrote “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black”)

(1) © Judi Moore Latta, 2020. Note: My granddaughter Jazmine—who aspires to study theatre and become an actor—and her parents came to spend a few nights with us in the middle of the pandemic. Their sojourn reminded me of “A Raisin in the Sun.” This poem addresses Jazmine and all the young people who walk carrying basil. Judi Moore Latta, Ph.D is a professor emerita of communications at Howard University, and an award winning journalist. She shared this poem as part of #BlackPlantLove for #BlackBotanistsWeek. Read more of her works at her website, Dr. Latta’s latest book is Beyond Roses -- An Obligation to Speak (Finding Voice for Conversations), a tool kit for having conversations across lines of racial division.