DURHAM, N.H. — Think poinsettia plants are passe? Had enough holly at the holidays? Try tomatoes.
Besides growing dozens of varieties of poinsettias for a national research project, the University of New Hampshire has been experimenting with dwarf tomato plants as holiday decor. Researchers grew about six dozen plants in three varieties of tomatoes and showed them off along with the poinsettias at a holiday open house recently.
"There's been so much interest in vegetable gardening in the last few seasons, and it's starting to become a larger part of spring production in retail greenhouses across the country. People are interested in growing their own food," said David Goudreault, assistant manager of the Macfarlane Greenhouses at the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station.
"We just thought it's green, it's got red on it and it kind of fits in with that whole concept," he said of the tomato plants. "It's something that could be locally grown, and it could be a nice little gift to bring to a holiday dinner."
Though ornamental chili peppers have become more popular as holiday plants in recent years, the peppers that make for the most attractive plant often are too tough or hot to eat, Goudreault said. That wouldn't be the case with tomatoes.
"On a sunny windowsill, a plant like this bears tasty, edible fruit, so it could be an interesting little addition," he said.
During the open house, people were asked in a survey whether they would consider buying tomato plants as hostess gifts or for holiday decorating. More than 80 percent of those surveyed on the open house's first day said yes.
"I don't think they knew what to expect, but everyone thought the plants were beautiful. They liked the abundance of fruit," Goudreault said.
One couple was particularly thrilled — they buy tomato plants from the University of New Hampshire greenhouse each March and give them as late Christmas presents, Goudreault said. Next year, they might be able to give the gifts on time.
"Now that we know that people are open to the idea, next season what we'll likely do is evaluate a number of dwarf tomatoes and see what their potential is for fall production," he said.
Researchers planted three small, fast-growing varieties — "Red Robin," ''Micro Tom" and "Sweet N' Neat" — in 4.5-inch and 6.5-inch pots. With their dense leaves and bushy shape, the plants ended up roughly the same size as the popular poinsettias. But they cost much less to grow, Goudreault said.
"We would probably start them about the same time as a poinsettia cutting, but the initial cost is much less. They take up less space; insects and pests are not as much of an issue. They're much less demanding," he said. "If you started them early enough you could cool them down and grow them at slightly cooler temperatures to finish them off in time."
This year's crop was a modest first step toward exploring the idea of growing tomatoes as holiday ornamentals, he said. Researchers wanted to try a few plants and see how the public reacted before committing more resources. In future years, they might do a more extensive experiment that delves into the best way to grow the plants, how much to sell them for and other areas, he said.
Richard Jauron, a horticulture professor at Iowa State University, said the New Hampshire experiment seemed to fit into a pattern of a never-ending search for unusual ways to celebrate the holidays with plants.
From unusual-colored poinsettias to cacti and flowers like an amaryllis or cyclamen, people often seek plants to spruce up their holiday.
And what people choose can vary depending on where they live, Jauron said.
"In Arizona and California they will decorate their cactus," he said.