Origin: Isfahan, Iran
Improvement status: Landrace
Seeds per packet: ~35
Germination tested 12/2021: 65% (below standard)
Life cycle: Annual
EFN INTRODUCTION. NEW FOR 2022. 'Isfahan' is a productive, pest-resistant, delicious red salad-sized tomato. It has a determinate to semi-determinate growth habit, and comes originally from the major Iranian city of Isfahan. We're interested in seeds from Isfahan, in particular, because the climate is somewhat similar to ours in Elmer, NJ, at least with respect to average monthly low temperatures (the summer there gets significantly hotter). This tomato may originally have had another name, but since none was recorded by its collecters (as far as we can tell so far), we've given it a name based solely on its provenance. And thats where the story gets interesting...
We got the seeds for this tomato from the USDA's National Plant Germplasm System. According to their records, it was collected in Isfahan, Iran in 1940 (just five years after foreigners were asked to stop referring to the country as Persia). That's about all we can gather from the USDA database entry, other than the fact that the listed collector was a man by the name of Walter Norman Koelz.
Koelz (1895-1989) is listed as the donor of a mind-blowing 10,619 accessions in the National Plant Germplasm System — meaning that he sent propagative material, probably mostly seeds, of 10,619 unique plant collections to the Bureau of Plant Industry in Beltsville, Maryland — which might just be a record. But a little digging reveals there's much more to the story than that.
Koelz was trained as a zoologist and spent much of his career traveling the world collecting and documenting animals (especially birds and fish), but also plants and anthropology-related material, primarily for the USDA, the Department of Fisheries, and the University of Michigan. The Himalayas, Tibet, Central Asia, and the Indian Subcontinent were his primary, but not exclusive, stomping grounds. Early in his career he was part of the famous and harrowing 1925 Byrd/MacMillan expedition to the American Arctic. Over the course of his travels, he collected nearly 30,000 bird speciments for the University's museum, and a similar number of plant specimens for its herbarium.
During an early trip to India in 1930, he met a 28-year-old Indian man named Thakur Rup Chand, with whom his life would become deeply intertwined over the next half-century. Chand (1902-1994) was born to a well-to-do family in Punjab and enrolled in imperial Britain's Indian Territorial Force army in 1927. After leaving the army he met Koelz, and the two apparently struck up a friendship, or at least a close working relationship. They would go on to collaborate on travels and specimen collecting for most of the next almost three decades. Chand visited the US with Koelz in 1934 and 1937, and soon received an official appointment from the University of Michigan to engage in plant collection on the school's behalf. Chand is responsible for collecting some 8,000 specimens himself, though he receives no credit in the USDA database for any of the live plant or seed collections attributed to Koelz.
In 1953, Koelz returned to Michigan to his family home in the rural town of Waterloo (where he was born 57 years earlier, and where his father had served as the town blacksmith), and by 1956 his colleague Chand had secured permission to immigrate to the US. For the next four years, Chand lived with Koelz in his cluttered Michigan farmhouse, filled with decades worth of artifacts from around the world (which were sold at auction after his death to the tune of $1.7 million for the benefit of the Nature Conservancy). At some point in 1960 the two late-middle-aged men had a falling out, after which Chand won a lawsuit against Koelz in which he claimed he was owed $50,000 from the pair's joint collecting efforts. He was granted $15,000 in 1964.
Chand spent most of his professional life in the US cataloguing, labeling, and mounting specimens for the University, many of which he and Koelz had collected. He officially retired in 1970, but continued working part-time long after that. Another major project was translating his diaries from their expeditions from Urdu to English. All of that work — journals, diaries, translations — currently resides in a special collection the university's Bentley Historical Library. The "Rup Chand papers: 1930-1994", neatly organized and stacked in a tower, are nearly 6 feet tall. (I plan to peruse them someday — my sister works for the University — in the hopes of learning more about this tomato and other plants they collected.)
Koelz spent the rest of his days mainly fishing, tending to his large garden, and entertaining visitors who made the trek to Waterloo, about 30 miles west of Ann Arbor. Having spent most of his career "tramping" across Asia, he never drove a car and never wore shoes, even during Michigan's harsh winters (his feet were said to be as calloused as horse hooves!). An unpublished obituary written by Kathleen McCleary for Sports Illustrated recounted that he'd once adopted a pet 500-lb wild boar, and decapitated a robber with a shotgun in Luristan, Iran ("'The authorities came and complimented him for having gotten rid of a very troublesome robber,' says Henry Austin, a U. of M. professor emeritus who knew Koelz for more than 65 years. 'Then they let the robber´s body lie in the doorway all morning with the flies getting `round it'").
Koelz was a staunch Republican who apparently had a knack for getting friends to support his unique lifestyle: a Doug Henry would almost every morning drop him at a lake to fish, then pick him up in the evening; an Associate Dean named Carolyn Copeland would bring groceries; and a George Hauff would do his laundry ("He knew how to make people his servants," says Henry Austin, "and they thought it was worthwhile because HE was worthwhile!").
It's unclear from the records I've found what caused Chand and Koelz to fall out, nor whether or not they mended it, but both men lived into their 90s within about 30 years of each other, and we can glean from available records that they were both close friends with Carolyn Copeland until their ends (she is listed as the donor of the entire Thakur Rup Chand collection, which implies that he'd willed it to her).
What's also unclear, of course, is whether or not it is Chand or Koelz who actually deserves credit for collecting the tomato this essay is supposed to be about (not to mention the 10,618 other accessions attributed to Koelz in the USDA collection). Regardless, we're very pleased to be introducing this marvelous little tomato to commerce in the US for the first time, some 82 years after a unique pair of travelers first encountered it in Isfahan.
These seeds were produced for us by our friend Olivia Gamber in Philadelphia.