Researchers discover new type of bush tomato in Australian Outback : Short Wave A few years ago, a team of scientists set out on a field expedition in the rugged, dry Northern Territory of Australia. There, they found a plant that was both strange and familiar hiding in plain sight. After careful research during the pandemic, the newly described tomato recently made its debut in PhytoKeys, a peer-reviewed, open-access journal. Today, Short Wave Scientist in Residence Regina G. Barber talks to lead author Tanisha Williams about the plant's journey from the side of a trail in the Australian Outback to a greenhouse in rural Pennsylvania.

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A newly identified type of tomato has been hiding in plain sight

A newly identified type of tomato has been hiding in plain sight

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Tanisha Williams and Chris Martine examine an Australian bush tomato in the Rooke Science Building greenhouse. Emily Paine/Bucknell University hide caption

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Emily Paine/Bucknell University

Tanisha Williams and Chris Martine examine an Australian bush tomato in the Rooke Science Building greenhouse.

Emily Paine/Bucknell University

A few years ago, a team of U.S. and Australian researchers set out on a field expedition to the rugged, dry Northern Territory of Australia. Along their journey, the team happened upon a curious plant.

That plant recently made its debut in PhytoKeys, a peer-reviewed, open-access journal. The research was led by Bucknell University scientists Tanisha Williams and Chris Martine. Martine was the one who locked eyes with the mystery specimen.

Walking along one of the Judbarra/Gregory National Park trails in the remote Outback, Martine noticed a strange plant. Growing by the trail edge, he saw what looked like a solanum — the plant genus known for eggplants, potatoes and tomatoes. Loosely, it checked out with the Solanum genus of plants he knew from decades of research. But the stems were unexpectedly prickly and ladder-like. It made the team wonder, was this a new species of wild tomato?

To find out, the team brought specimens to a greenhouse at Bucknell in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. And so, in the early pandemic, when many were not leaving their homes, Williams dutifully returned to campus. Each day she measured, watered and cared for the plants, growing them from seeds. A botanist's pandemic silver lining.

"It's something that really helped me out in the pandemic," says Williams. "I knew what each day was because I was an essential staff, because I had to keep these plants alive."

In the end, the team confirmed that the species was previously unknown to science. Its new name: Solanum scalarium, or commonly, the Garrarnawun Bush Tomato. The scientific name has a double meaning. Scalarium translates to "ladder," "staircase" or "stairs." That refers to both the ladder-like prickles along the stem and the importance of access to natural spaces. The common name honors the location where the specimens were found — the only one known to date. Martine notes that it is a traditional meeting place for the Wardaman and Nungali Ngaliwurru peoples.

Williams says that when the fruit first develops, it's a bit green. As they mature, they turn yellow and grow to roughly the size of a cherry tomato.

The solanum scalarium has an unusual ladder-like arrangement of prickles on male floral stems. Jonathan Hayes/Bucknell University hide caption

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Jonathan Hayes/Bucknell University

The solanum scalarium has an unusual ladder-like arrangement of prickles on male floral stems.

Jonathan Hayes/Bucknell University

As for the taste? It's said to be a little bitter and sour, setting it apart from the sweeter cultivated tomato and its distant cousin, the cultivated eggplant, that many of us find in the supermarket.

"So, it's not a species you would want to eat," laughs Williams. "But there are plenty in solanum — in the genus — that are very yummy and tasty."

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This episode was produced by Brit Hanson, edited by Rebecca Ramirez and fact-checked by Anil Oza. Carleigh Strange was the audio engineer.

Correction Feb. 16, 2023

An earlier version of this story misstated the location of Bucknell University. It is in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.