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The Coastal Gardener: The legend of O.C.'s wild tomatoes

I often feel sorry for my daughter. But at least she'll have plenty of stories to tell her children.

About five years ago, I recall doing my best to convince her to come with me on an all-day, far-fetched attempt to locate the last wild tomatoes in Orange County.

That's right, wild tomatoes — in the hills of Orange County. This is a true story.

First, a little background. In the summer of 1769, the first European expedition in California had reached Orange County. The hot, dry conditions had left the party precariously short of water.

Fortunately, a Spaniard in the expedition by the name of Padre Gomez discovered a spring in what is now the East Irvine area, providing the party with a welcome source of fresh water.

For the next few days the group camped near the life-sustaining springs, and the site was soon called the "Spring of Padre Gomez." About 100 years later, the area was given a new name, "Tomato Springs," due to the abundance of wild tomatoes that were supposedly growing in the area, the progeny of previous visitors.

Today, the general area that was once the Spring of Padre Gomez and then Tomato Springs, has been renamed again, this time by The Irvine Co. "Portola Springs" is a far more marketing-savvy title, especially to prospective new homeowners.

Everyone who has grown tomatoes knows how easily they grow from seed. Who hasn't had little tomatoes sprouting in random spots, remnants from some prior years' fruit? Long lived and hard to kill, the seeds even travel from place to place in planting mix or in load of topsoil.

Now, to that summer day a few years ago. What a romantic idea … wild tomatoes still persisting somewhere in Orange County, current-day survivors of a handful of plants grown in the 1800s by some of our area's earliest pioneers.

If I could find even just one plant and liberate a fruit from it, I could rediscover Orange County's long lost tomato. What a great idea. The Valencia orange, the namesake of Orange County, would have a new rival — the tomato. A true Orange County heirloom. Nurseries would propagate it; locals would cherish it. Elementary schools would hold assemblies in its honor. At dinner tables throughout the county, parents would give history lessons, using this tomato as the star.

It was a blazing hot, dusty summer day. It was a Sunday, and we arrived at the side of the road, stashed the car, navigated the barbed wire and headed off into the fields and bushes. The sounds of cars and trucks whizzing by up on the concrete ribbon were noticeable.

Rather than finding a stupid tomato, I'm sure my teenage daughter was far more concerned that one of her friends might see her with her father stomping and poking through fields of tumbleweeds. How would she explain that? Back and forth we searched, looking over every rise and around every bend. Our socks soon filled with 100 burrs, but we continued our search, back and forth, examining every plant we came across.

As we searched, I told my daughter more of the history of where we were standing. It just so happens that Tomato Springs was the site of perhaps Orange County's most notorious gunfight.

On the night of Dec. 16, 1912, a dog was barking at the ranch of Bill Cook. Cook sent his daughter and younger niece out to calm the dog. While outside, a tall, slim man with a gun jumped at them and dragged the younger girl behind the barn, where he tied her up.

Even with shots fired, the young girl managed to untie herself and ran screaming into the house. Her uncle, having no weapons, immediately went for help as more rounds were fired. With lanterns, the sheriff and a quickly assembled band of farmers searched all night for the assailant. By morning, the gunman had been tracked to the area known as Tomato Springs.

When the posse caught up with him, the fugitive taunted the men and ran off into the foothills. When the sheriff caught up to him, both fired. The sheriff was killed. Deputy Tex Stacey caught up with the man next, noticing he was wounded. Soon Stacey was wounded himself.

Meanwhile, others circled the assailant's position. By mid-morning there were more than 200 locals involved in the shootout, including Company L of the National Guard. Several guardsmen were selected to charge the gunman.

They slowly got into position, then attacked. Shots were fired and the gunman was dead, a hole though his temple. The "Tomato Springs Bandit," was taken to Santa Ana, where his body was propped in the front of seat of a car and paraded down Fourth Street before being taken to the undertakers. The incident became the bloodiest battle in Orange County history, leaving two dead and three wounded.

Meanwhile, all my daughter and I found were more sock burrs and a sunburn. The legend of Orange County's wild tomatoes would remain a legend and my daughter would gain another story that she could tell to her children — about the dry summer day when her father made her hunt all day in a dusty field for a fictitious tomato that hadn't been seen in 150 years.

RON VANDERHOFF is the nursery manager at Roger's Gardens, Corona del Mar

Ask Ron

Question: Where can I buy true topsoil — you know, dirt? I can't find it anywhere

Gwen, Costa Mesa

Answer: Don't be fooled by the bags you'll occasionally see a home centers called topsoil. They're not topsoil, they're an artificial blend. If you want real topsoil, you have to get it bulk from a building material supplier. Locally, I like Larry's Building Materials at 1151 Baker St. in Costa Mesa or at 1975 Laguna Canyon Road in Laguna Beach.

ASK RON your toughest gardening questions, and the expert nursery staff at Roger's Gardens will come up with an answer. Please include your name, phone number and city, and limit queries to 30 words or fewer. E-mail, or write to Plant Talk at Roger's Gardens, 2301 San Joaquin Hills Road, Corona del Mar, CA 92625.

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