They say that, a long time ago, a special tomato was cultivated, which was easier to slide into a jar and made the lives of women easier during the preserve-making season. Whether this story is true or not, it’s hard to say. However, one thing is not in doubt: over several decades, different varieties of Armenian tomatoes have attracted many people for their taste. So much so, that when guests come from abroad, the first thing they are usually served is a tomato.
Armenia’s “tomato heritage” started in 1944, when plant breeder Anahit Ananyan cultivated the first Armenian tomato variety, which was named “Anahit 20” in her honor. This variety, which is a mid-season cultivar, was created at the Republican Seed Breeding Station by using local tomato populations through multiple and individual selection methods. It was then registered in the official Soviet catalog of plant varieties in 1949. The Anahit 20 stood out for its meatiness and taste. The juice, puree and paste it produced were in high demand, leading to its success.
Ananyan has written extensively about the history of tomatoes and their varieties in Armenia. Much of her work can be found in the book “Armenia’s Practice of Vegetable Preserve Making,” which notes that tomatoes originated in South America (specifically in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador), where they had been cultivated from time immemorial. According to Ananyan, the tomato was brought to Europe in the 16th century. It was first described by Italian botanist Pietro Andrea Mattioli, who called it pomo d’oro (golden apple) and pomo d’amouris (apple of love). According to Mattioli, the tomato was considered poisonous for a long time and was grown only for decorative purposes at first, and then later on as herbal medicine.
According to Ananyan, there is no information on when tomatoes were imported to Armenia. The earliest recording is from 1870 in the Yerevan Province’s [Governorate, an administrative division of the Russian Empire],“Agricultural Statistical Information” publication. Ananyan also states that Ghevond Alishan mentions tomatoes in his work “Hay Busak” (Vocabulary of Armenia Flora), where he wrote that the “delicious, red juice of the tomato was used for different dishes as a spice.”
Following the creation of Anahit 20, Anahit Ananyan established the Republican Seed Breeding Station in the village of Darakert – now in the Ararat region, not far from the capital of Yerevan – thus marking a new phase in the development of crops. The Station was renamed in 1998 to the Scientific Center of Vegetable and Industrial Crops.
“She laid the first stone and said that, from then on, varieties had to be created here,” says Gayane Sargsyan, the current Director of the Center, who had the opportunity to work with Ananyan when she was a student at university. “She said this field had to be advanced in Armenia.” Ananyan also took part in designing and overseeing the construction of the Center’s building, along with her scientist colleagues.
“Anahit Ananyan had the sharp eye of a plant breeder. When she would walk through the fields, she immediately knew what had to be done,” says Sargsyan. “To this day, our plant breeders’ work is based on her collection. That’s how big the database she gave us is. Very few people can make such breeding decisions. The tomato has become a primary vegetable [in Armenia] thanks to Anahit. Our country should be grateful to her for the variety of tomatoes we have.”
Born in 1900 in the village of Poghoskilisa (now named Shamakhyan and amalgamated with the city of Dilijan), Anahit Ananyan was an Armenian Soviet vegetable grower and plant breeder. She graduated from the Department of Agriculture at the Polytechnic Institute in Tbilisi in 1926 and obtained her Ph.D. in agriculture in 1966. Ananyan was recognized as an Honorary Scientist of the Armenian SSR, eventually being awarded the title “Hero of Socialist Labor.” In 1933, she became the Director of the Armenian SSR Republican Seed Breeding Station. She is the creator of several varieties of tomatoes, including Anahit 20, Anahit 360, Yerevan 14, Masis 202, Hobelyanakan 261, Karine 388, Araks 322 and Etchmiadzin 260.
Svetlana Hayrapetova, another accomplished Armenian plant breeder, has also written about Ananyan in her memoir. Hayrapetyan worked at the Center for nearly 40 years and is the creator of several varieties of tomato herself, including the famous Lia variety. She considers herself Ananyan’s student and showers her with praise:
“Anahit Ananyan was already at an old age [when I worked with her]. However, she worked with great fervor, amazing us all. It was such a great joy to work with that famous scientist. Many young scientists wanted to be like her, trying to obtain knowledge from her and be present during her scientific experiments. I later found out that she was related to the famous writer and environmental expert Vakhtang Ananyan and was the sister of Serik Ananyan, a Doctor of Medical Sciences who had received a medal from the Republic of Cuba.”
In her memoirs, Baku-born Hayrapetova wrote that she came to Armenia for the first time in 1970, when her husband, Madat Arakelyan, an engineer, was invited to Armenia to work on the Arpa-Sevan hydro dam construction. She writes:
“I immediately felt myself in heaven here – in these mountains with alpine vegetation. I did not want to leave the mountains of Martuni. I was surprised at how many varying types of vegetation there was in this small piece of land… I was immediately convinced there was no turning back. This was my home.
“I always loved nature, the miracle of nature. My love toward nature comes from my childhood, even though, as I mentioned, I lived in a place where nature was subordinated to the oil industry, where merely seeing a tree brought great joy… I didn’t come to Armenia empty-handed. I had submitted my doctoral thesis in the same field. When my meeting with Anahit Ananyan took place, the renowned scientist accepted me, listened and immediately offered me a job as a researcher at the Armenian SSR Republican Seed Breeding Station.”
Many have raised an alarm that the Armenian tomato is disappearing. Gayane Sargsyan does not agree, however. “Nothing has been lost – not any variety of tomato, not nazrvan [cucumber variety], nor anything else,” she says. “Whatever Armenia has had in terms of crops has been maintained.”
She says not one variety has been lost. It’s just becoming more difficult to find them in the market because many farmers prefer to grow imported varieties, which tend to be more competitive, productive and portable.
When talking about the Anahit 20 and Anahit 360, she had this to say:
“A lot has changed since 1949. ‘Anahit’ has been preserved, of course, but it is no longer competitive. It is usually cultivated in smaller fields for personal use. But for those fields which are used for industrial purposes, naturally, it is not favorable. Varieties from abroad are easier to get to the market and store for months. It’s not possible to store our varieties for months; the maximum is one week. This is why farmers prefer to cultivate other varieties, because they directly support their businesses and are more profitable. However, in terms of taste, not one variety from abroad can be compared to ours.”
Currently, the Scientific Center of Vegetable and Industrial Crops, headed by Gayane Sargsyan, is busy preserving old varieties, perfecting them and creating new ones. “Plant breeders are creating new varieties based on market demands, while preserving the old ones,” says Sargsyan. All the old varieties and their samples are kept at the Center’s Gene Pool Repository. “The aim of the Repository is to preserve different varieties and their samples,” explains Alvina Avagyan, who heads the division. “The selection and breeding process constantly requires new raw material and a variety sample which if cannot be registered as a variety, can be used as a raw material in the selection and breeding process.”
The Center currently has 36 varieties of tomatoes. Sargsyan explains that, when creating a new variety, the plant breeder takes into account where it is intended to go and for what purpose. “Each one has its own feature, its own special niche,” she states. “One is ideal for being eaten, the other for making tomato paste.”
The varieties cultivated at the Center can be grown throughout Armenia. Despite the fact that most of the country’s crops are centered around the Ararat Valley, they can also be grown in mountainous and semi-mountainous areas if seedlings are planted instead of seeds. According to the Center, this is a great achievement because it wasn’t possible to cultivate those crops in semi-mountainous terrain before. “Back then, local residents had to go to the Ararat Valley to get crops. But now, vegetables are grown all over Armenia, primarily tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and even eggplants,” says Sargsyan and adds that plant breeders are now also working on the shapes and color diversity of the tomato.
According to Karine Sarikyan, one of the Center’s plant breeders, old and new varieties are being studied separately, taking into account their adaptive and biological features, as well as their agricultural and economic value features. The Center is also studying international collections by carrying out selection and breeding work. As for the old varieties (for example, Yerevan 14, Masis 202, Araks, Hrazdan), they are being improved by the Center which has come up with their super-elite seed varieties. It is now preparing to launch widespread seed breeding next year with the purpose of restoring and spreading these varieties all over the country. Sarikyan says that Armenians still prefer the old varieties and adds that now they have more adaptive features and are more competitive.