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A Tomato Grows Near Brooklyn

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Imagine you're on a paddle board in the East River - that's all I'd ever do, imagine it. Near the Brooklyn Bridge, you're admiring that Gershwin tune Manhattan skyline when you spot something red. You paddle closer, closer and suddenly see...

MATT FREY: One red tomato and, like, four little yellow blossoms on top.

SIMON: Matt Frey found a little tomato plant growing atop a wood piling in the water. At first, he wasn't sure what it was.

FREY: I had actually seen it before and thought it was just some weed with a - with some sort of red blossom on it.

SIMON: But as he got closer, it was unmistakable - a single plump tomato growing on a piling in the middle of the East River.

FREY: Other than myself, I don't see too many people in amongst these pilings. They're really kind of inaccessible unless you're on a small kayak or paddleboard. So it would be impossible to get out there, plant and tend a tomato plant.

SIMON: So how did it get there?

FREY: Well, we've theorized mostly that it would be bird poop.

SIMON: That is, some bird snacked on a tomato plant, maybe in New Jersey, and brought forth, if you please, a tomato plant. There's no way to know for sure how the tomato plant came to the East River piling, but Matt Frey hopes it's a sign the water quality is better. He's been kayaking and paddle boarding in the area for many years and says it's improving. But Gregory O'Mullan, an environmental biologist and professor at Queens College in the City University of New York says...

GREGORY O'MULLAN: As unusual as a tomato plant may be, some are taking that as a signal of improvement in water quality. You know, I think that that's perhaps a little bit of a stretch.

SIMON: He studies water quality, including along the East River, and says while conditions have certainly improved since he started collecting samples over a decade ago, a tomato plant probably isn't proof thereof. But he says there is cause for optimism.

O'MULLAN: Whether it's the minke whale that was in the river about a decade ago, or the occasional seal and dolphin that's observed in the area that are signs of hope.

SIMON: After we reached Matt Frey, he went out for an evening paddle to check on the tomato plant, and he says it was gone - no doubt some four-star chef who wants to make an East River piling-to-table gazpacho. Matt Frey says he paddled around and found another tomato plant with yellow cherry tomatoes. I would understand if you didn't believe me, he wrote in an email. I initially assumed someone was screwing with me, but it seems to be very real.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HANG ON LITTLE TOMATO")

PINK MARTINI: (Singing) Just hang on, hang on to the vine. Stay on. Soon you'll be divine. If you start to... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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