West Virginia University professor unveils new "people's tomato"

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West Virginia University professor unveils new
WVU plant pathology professor emeritus Mannon Gallegly holds one of his previous tomato varieties. (WVU Photo)

A plant pathology professor emeritus who has spent more than 70 years developing hearty tomato varieties for home gardeners has created his fourth and final tomato — the West Virginia 2023, dubbed “Mannon’s Majesty.”

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“With so many tomato growers in this state, I wanted to help them continue to grow their food,” Mannon Gallegly said. “I am, after all, an employee of the people of West Virginia. That’s why I developed it — for the people of West Virginia.”

Plant pathology professor Mannon Gallegly has spent more than 70 years researching tomato varieties. (WVU Photo)

Gallegly, now 101 and 30 years into retirement, began his tomato-creating journey in 1950. His research at WVU on vegetable diseases and tomato blight led him on a 13-year quest to develop the West Virginia 1963, known as the “people’s tomato.”

The variety was released in 1963 and rereleased in 2013 to commemorate West Virginia’s 100th and 150th birthdays. In 2017, he created two more new varieties — the West Virginia 2017A and the West Virginia 2017B — in honor of the 150th birthday of the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Design, the University’s founding academic unit.

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The West Virginia ’23 is resistant to Septoria lycopersici or Septoria leaf spot, one of the significant diseases home gardeners deal with, Gallegly explained. It’s also resistant to fusarium wilt, verticillium wilt, and late blight.

Septoria leaf spots affect the foliage of the tomato plant, removing the leaves and exposing the fruit to direct sunlight, which can lead to sunscald. This can either kill the plant or negatively affect the taste. Fusarium wilt is a fungal disease that can cause significant yield losses. Verticillium wilt is also a fungal disease that causes gradual deterioration, and late blight infects the entire plant, spreads quickly, and can cause total crop failure.

Gallegly inoculated his research plants with these diseases before putting them in a moisture chamber for three days. The survivors are those that are resistant. From those, he picked tomatoes based on preferred size, color, shape, and taste. He bred them in the field to eventually have a delicious tomato that is resistant to disease and has a good size, shape, and color.

As he did with his previous varieties, Gallegly sent the new seeds to the World Vegetable Center, an international, nonprofit institute for vegetable research and development focusing on climate change.

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Unlike his previous varieties, Gallegly asked Davis College Dean Darrell Donahue, also the West Virginia Agriculture and Forestry Experiment Station director, to name the West Virginia 2023.

“Mannon gave me the honor of naming this new variety, which I did not take lightly,” Donahue said. “He named his previous tomatoes in honor of West Virginia, so it’s only right that we, and the state, honor him for all that he’s given us. Mannon shies away from the spotlight, but I thought it was best to name the West Virginia ’23 after him — ‘Mannon’s Majesty.’”

A limited amount of seeds is currently available to growers at no cost. Those interested may submit requests to Whitney Dudding, WVU Evansdale Greenhouse manager, at wldudding@mail.wvu.edu. Requests must include a full name, desired variety, number of seeds, and shipping address.

Gallegly plans to plant more “Mannon’s Majesty” next summer to increase the seed amount available to the public.

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WVU Communications Specialist Leah Smith of the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Design contributed this story.

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