Heirloom Tomato Varieties
See which heirloom tomato varieties you should grow in your kitchen garden, plus put your harvest to use with a Tomato Kromeskies recipe.
October 4, 2013
By William Woys Weaver
Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by William Woys Weaver is the culmination of some thirty years of first-hand knowledge of growing, tasting and cooking with heirloom vegetables. A staunch supporter of organic gardening techniques, Will Weaver has grown every one of the featured 280 varieties of vegetables, and he walks the novice gardener through the basics of planting, growing and seed saving. Sprinkled throughout the gardening advice are old-fashioned recipes — such as Parsnip Cake, Artichoke Pie and Pepper Wine — that highlight the flavor of these vegetables. The following excerpt on heirloom tomato varieties was taken from chapter 35, “Tomatoes.”
Buy the brand new e-book of Weaver’s gardening classic in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Heirloom Vegetable Gardening.
To locate mail order companies that carry these heirloom tomato varieties, use our Custom Seed and Plant Finder. Check out our collection of articles on growing and harvesting heirloom vegetables in Gardening With Heirloom Vegetables.
A Brief History of Heirloom Tomato Varieties
The 1870 catalog of Massachusetts seedsman James J. H. Gregory listed what were then the best-known tomatoes available to American gardeners. His selection is interesting for two reasons: it is more complete than any other American seedsmen’s of the same period, and it represents the state of the tomato right before the vast proliferation of new varieties that followed almost annually after that time. Several of the names are familiar to tomato collectors today; many are extinct or survive only in impure seed. Here are Gregory’s tomatoes: Alger, Boston Market, Cherry, Cook’s Favorite, Crimson Cluster, Dwarf Scotch, Early Orangefield, Early York, Feejee, General Grant, Keyes’ Early Prolific, Large Yellow, Large Smooth Red, Lester’s Perfected, Mammoth Cluster, Maupay’s Superior, New Mexican, Tilden, Tomato de Laye, and Strawberry or groundcherry. Gregory treated groundcherries as tomatoes, but since they are a different genus and species, I have discussed them separately.
Tomato collectors like Dr. Carolyn Male, editor of the tomato newsletter Off the Vine, continue to seek out old varieties such as these to grow them, reconstruct their histories, and compare them against the many thousands of tomatoes that are now part of American seed collections. Carolyn’s tomato collection is one of the largest in the United States, and she has graciously dipped into it for seed to help me create the field notes that were necessary for growing out some of the varieties in this section of the book. Her advice on varieties like Greengage, which has come down heavily crossed, was invaluable. And like me, she is interested in salvaging old varieties if they have good culinary qualities.
Some heirloom tomatoes can no longer be found. Crimson Cluster, shown in the wood engraving, was introduced in 1869. It was a scarlet-red tomato, beautifully shaped and covered with golden yellow flecks. No one knows for certain what it tasted like in spite of helpful Victorian descriptions, but the striped tomatoes of England like Tigerella, or the Schimmeig Stoo of the Isle of Man, must be lineal descendants. The complexities of heirlooms extinct or heavily crossed, of seed circulated under the wrong names, of varieties that may have evolved as backyard mongrels without commercial pedigrees, make the study of American tomatoes a category of garden research unto itself. Furthermore, there are collectors whose only interest are yellow varieties, or varieties with potato-like leaves, or varieties that date from before a given period.
Andrew F. Smith’s Tomato in America (1994) traces the history of much of this from the colonial period to about the time of the Civil War. Smith’s is a useful study for anyone serious about the history of the tomato, and a fascinating insight into how Americans, once suspicious of this brilliantly colored vegetable, changed their minds in the 1830s and became the most enthusiastic of tomato gardeners by the 1850s. No American kitchen garden is complete without its tomatoes. In fact, it is probably safe to say that Americans judge vegetable gardens today by the tomatoes in them rather than by the cabbages or carrots or other vegetables. Many backyard gardens contain nothing but tomatoes. Perhaps it is no exaggeration to suggest that the tomato has now become a symbol of our gardening culture.
The person most responsible for this remarkable transformation was Alexander W. Livingston (1822–1898), a seedsman from Reynoldsburg, Ohio. Livingston launched his Paragon tomato in 1870 (astutely named after a then well-known canning jar), and this in turn launched his career as the developer of thirteen major, and many lesser, commercial tomato varieties. By 1878, A. W. Livingston’s Sons moved to Columbus, Ohio, and became the uncontested leader in American tomato breeding. Many of the heirloom varieties I have selected trace their ancestry to this company.
Livingston was keenly aware of the usefulness of genetic diversity, especially in wild tomatoes. For example, the wild tomato of the Galapagos Islands, Lycopersicon cbeesmanii, is insensitive to salt water and grows within a few yards of the high-tide mark. Gardens planted with it can be irrigated with sea water. The plant therefore holds promise for developing a whole array of tomatoes that can be grown under desert conditions near the sea. Other tomatoes offer useful traits to breeders interested in extending the tomato into regions far beyond its natural frontiers such as Siberia or the far North.
Today, the divisions between yellow and red sorts, the dividing line used by gardeners in the eighteenth century, is blurred by pinks, oranges, purples, even green tomatoes. From an culinary standpoint, many of the most interesting tomatoes, those like Evergreen (green flesh, yellow skin) or Aunt Ruby’s German Green (green flesh, green skin) do not date from the nineteenth century. In order to impose perimeters on my selections, I have featured varieties from before 1900. This leaves out a great many of my own favorites like Oxheart, yet I think the range of tomatoes I have chosen represents a good balance of the sorts most likely to appear in a kitchen garden, also taking into account a variety of colors and shapes. Some of them reflect shifts in regional tastes. Only purple tomatoes could be sold in Saint Louis years ago, because the residents did not like the perceived flavor of other colors. National marketing patterns have changed this, but old purple varieties like Eva Purple Ball survive to confirm that Saint Louis knew flavor in tomatoes when it saw it.
In reconstructing the data provided on the tomatoes profiled in this section, I have relied on three valuable field tests that described these heirlooms in minute detail. An English growout undertaken in 1867 was reported in the American Journal of Horticulture in 1868. It revealed that the Orangefield of one seedsman was the Large Italian Red of another, and that substitutions of similar varieties were as common then as now. New York seedsman Peter Henderson undertook a similar growout a few years later and reported his results in the American Agriculturist. Most useful, however, was Gordon Morrison’s Tomato Varieties, a massive field test of most American commercial varieties at the East Lansing, Michigan, Agricultural Experiment Station in 1936. This growout might be considered the final fling of the old sorts of tomatoes on the eve of the advent of the F1 hybrids that have taken over so much of the tomato commerce today.
Tomato growers generally try to categorize tomatoes by their seasonality: early, midseason, or late — but this type of productivity varies so much from one climate zone to the next that it is quite pointless to think in these terms for home gardens. The two basic botanical divisions are between Lycopersicon lycopersicon, our common garden varieties, and Lycopersicon pimpinellifolium, the tiny currant tomatoes. They can both come to fruit at the same time. The other way to divide tomatoes is by determinate or indeterminate, which means essentially how the vines fruit. The determinate sorts come to fruit all at once, then stop bearing. They are preferred by many commercial growers because the tomatoes can be harvested at a given time, then plowed under as green manure so that a different vegetable crop can be planted in the fields. Most Jersey tomatoes are now this type, which is why so few Jersey tomatoes come to market after August 15. The indeterminate tomatoes produce right up to a killing frost. All of the tomatoes I have profiled are this type because kitchen gardeners want as many tomatoes during the course of the growing season as possible. In fact, I do not grow any determinate tomatoes.
Tomatoes are also divided by leaf type. The great variety of leaf shapes is often only evident when many varieties are planted side by side. Potato-leaf types began appearing in this country in the early 1860s, introduced here from France. Keyes’ Early Prolific, developed in 1864, was one of the first commercial potato-leaf varieties. It resulted from an accidental cross of French tomatoes C. A. Keyes was growing at the time. Brandywine is an example of a potato-leaf heirloom that is still grown today. Other leaf types are “regular,” a catchall term for a range of typical tomato leaves from delicate to coarsely cut profiles, and “ferny,” which describes a plumelike appearance to the leaves.
Fruit types are often described as “oblate” (round but flat like a squash), “carrot-shaped” (long and pointed), or “globular” (perfectly round). There are many tomato varieties with combinations of these types or with intermediate shapes, so it is often difficult to fit them into neat schemes with fixed labels. To alleviate doubts, I have tried to provide woodcuts or drawings of all the varieties discussed, particularly where a physical feature is also a varietal distinction.
Hybridizing over the past few centuries has altered the structure of the tomato flower, particularly the female part of it. Thus, many older types of tomatoes are more likely to cross than newer ones. As a rule, the tomatoes most likely to cross in a given garden are those with potato leaves, those with double flowers (found on beefsteak types), and the currant tomatoes. All of these should be kept very far from other tomato varieties, at least 50 feet. Most newer types of tomatoes are self-fertile, with pollination taking place in the morning before the flower opens. However, all tomatoes should be kept at least 20 feet apart to insure seed purity. Never save seed from fruits produced by double flowers. These are the one type of tomato flower most easily pollinated by insects.
Seed should be saved from fruit most true to type, picked from several different plants over the course of the season. This seed should be mixed at the end of the season for greater genetic diversity. Tomato seed is gathered by scooping out the seed and jelly mass into jars of water and letting this ferment. Fermentation takes about three to five days. Once the mixture ferments, the scum will rise to the top and the best seed will sink to the bottom. The scum and water can be poured off and the seeds washed in a tea strainer. Spread the seed to dry on paper towels or on cookie sheets. Let the seed dry two to three weeks, then mark it carefully, date it, and store in airtight containers away from heat and direct light. The viability of tomato seed will range from four to ten years. I have even planted seed that was fifteen years old and had half of it germinate.
One of the most popular nineteenth-century “apple-shaped” tomatoes, Acme was developed by Alexander Livingston and introduced by the Livingston Seed Company in 1875. It is one of a small number of classic American tomatoes mentioned by Vilmorin (1885, 571), who listed it as tomate pomme violette. The fruit is round, somewhat flattened on the top and bottom, and indented on the blossom end like an apple. The color is deep violet-rose. The fruit hangs in clusters of two to four, weighing 4 to 6 ounces each. The vines begin to bear midseason and continue to bear heavily until frost.
Early Melrose, Early Minnesota, Essex Hybrid, Potomac, and Tall Champion are all considered synonyms, or are so similar that they are treated as subvarieties.
This tomato is undoubtedly the most famous of all American heirloom tomatoes dating from the nineteenth century, and like the Moon and Stars watermelon, it has become a symbol of the seed-saving movement. Brandywine has a number of aliases, and there are several tomatoes called Brandywine that are not in fact related to it. This has caused some confusion among growers and consumers. Only two tomatoes are original, and the yellow one is a sport.
In spite of the mythology surrounding Brandywine and its supposed Amish origins, the tomato is a commercial variety. It was introduced in January 1889 by the Philadelphia seed firm of Johnson & Stokes. The original announcement, which also shows a picture of the tomato, is reproduced from the Farm Journal (1889, 5). The Johnson & Stokes advertisements describing the tomato make it clear that the pink Brandywine of today, the variety with large fruit weighing almost one pound, is the same as the original introduction. The pink Brandywine has a very thin skin, which disqualifies it as a good shipping tomato. For this reason, it is not often seen in markets far from where it was grown. However, in terms of flavor, it is ranked as the best tasting of all American table tomatoes.
The plants of this tomato are large, and the heavy fruit necessitates staking. The tomato is a potato-leaf variety, with dark green leaves. The fruit tends to be large, beefsteak-type, somewhat ribbed, oblate, and extremely meaty. In my garden, the fruit ripens at the same time as Early Large Red. A tomato of similar appearance called Sterling Old German, from the Mennonite community around Sterling, Illinois, has the texture and size of Brandywine, the potato leaf, and the same color, but none of the distinctive flavor. It is thought to be a subsequent selection of Brandywine with traces of crossing with an unknown tomato — in short, not a pure Brandywine. However, it seems better adapted to the South and may produce better fruit in humid regions, where Brandywine is known to crack or split. Sudduth’s Brandywine (SSE TO-2) is a southern selection of Brandywine that retains much of the famous flavor.
Johnson & Stoke’s Brandywine produced a yellow sport early in the century. The Yellow Brandywine resembles its pink parent in leaf, fruit shape, and fruit size, but is less productive and subject to blossom end rot. The Yellow Brandywine ripens the same pumpkin-gold color as Golden Queen.
Lastly, there is a red tomato called Red Brandywine that is not genetically related to the original variety. Its fruits are smaller (2 1/2 inches in diameter), an intense, orange red, round, tough-skinned, and generally weak in the distinctive Brandywine taste. What is that famous flavor? Hard to pinpoint. Some describe it as intensely tomatoey, others as sweet and tomatoey. It is rich, that much is certain: what all tomato breeders aspire to and few have achieved. In Pennsylvania, where the variety originated, it has the lusciousness of a Burgundy wine and tastes as though minced parsley has been scattered over it. Nothing else is needed.
James Chalk of Norristown, Pennsylvania, developed this variety from an 1889 cross between Hubbard’s Curled Leaf and Perfection. The tomato was introduced commercially in 1899. It is very similar to June Pink except for the larger-size fruit and the red color. There are 3 to 5 fruits to a cluster. Normally, I pull off fruit if there are more than 3 in a cluster so that I have better-developed fruit in each cluster.
In any case, the vines of this variety are small and cannot bear much weight. However, the small size makes the plants easy to stake and ideal for small gardens. The variety is also relatively hardy, thus I can set out plants in early May and harvest ripe tomatoes by June 30. Chalk’s Early Jewel is consistently early for me, in fact, my first tomato of the season, but my garden is only six or seven miles from the spot where the tomato originated, and this proximity may have something to do with it.
When vine ripe, the fruit has a buttery texture that is enhanced by a dash of salt. The tomato is excellent when paired with steamed crab.
This weedy, semicultivated tomato from the region of Tamaulipas in northern Mexico is actually a species type, and as such, it will cross easily with most other heirlooms. The small leaf and fruit size are typical of the currant tomatoes, except that the fruit of this plant is larger, about ½ inch in diameter. It is also perfectly round. The fruit color is bright orange red and hangs in clusters. In size and plant type, this tomato conforms to the red cherry tomato described by Fearing Burr (1865, 648) and sold under that name by James J. H. Gregory of Marblehead, Massachusetts. There is a yellow variant of this tomato. Both the red and yellow are intensely flavored, but seedy. As heirlooms, they may be treated as the most common type of cherry tomato grown in this country between 1795 and 1865.
This tomato was recovered from obscurity in 1985/1986 by seed saver Bill Ellis, a professor at Penn State/Hazelton Campus. Bill related some of the particulars of its discovery to me because after growing it, I recognized it as an old, long-lost heirloom. He found the tomato in a basket of tomatoes sold by a vendor whose source was a greenhouse in DuBois, Pennsylvania. On growing out the tomato the following year, Ellis discovered that the tomato improved immensely in flavor if it was allowed to ripen on the vine. If picked underripe and ripened on a windowsill, the flavor will be bland. Harvested at peak ripeness, it vies with Brandywine for flavor and texture. After I had offered seed through Seed Savers Exchange for several years, it became evident to me that many people in West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania recognized the tomato, but Dr. Neal, whose name it bears, remains elusive.
It later developed that “Dr. Neal” was only one of several names by which the tomato was known, and he was not the originator anyway. The creator of the tomato was a gardener by the name of Lambert in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. Lambert, about whom little is presently known, released the tomato in 1869 under the name General Grant. The American Horticultural Annual (1869, 135–36) described the tomato as oblate (usually 3 inches in diameter or more), heavy for its size, and excellent in flavor. It was thought to be a sport or a cross with an old tomato called Boston Market and was described as “a capital sort for private gardeners, and for those customers who are willing to pay a slight advance for a superior tomato,” to quote the 1869 notice. However, since a tomato had already appeared under the name General Grant, the editors of the American Horticultural Annual suggested that Lambert find another name for his tomato. Doubtless this early confusion over names led to the development of so many aliases. The woodcut shows Lambert’s tomato, which is heavily ribbed and a rich rose-pink color. It is indented on the blossom end like an apple. Most specimens like the one depicted weigh 12 to 14 ounces. It is also an early variety. When I planted it on May 4 (1995), the vines were bearing heavily by July 22.
The original or first General Grant tomato was developed by a garden amateur in Boston in 1862 but not introduced commercially until 1869 by Washburn & Company of Boston. Seeds had been in circulation for trial among horticulturists since 1867. That tomato was a glossy crimson red and is now considered extinct.
This handsome tomato was developed by George Sparkes of Salem, New Jersey, and introduced in 1910 by the seed house of Johnson & Stokes of Philadelphia. It is now known by a huge list of synonyms and variant strains, some quite different from the original introduction. The first Earliana is believed to be a sport or derived from a sport of a tomato called Stone (introduced by Alexander Livingston in 1891), an heirloom that is still available. Gordon Morrison (1938, 28) described Earliana as scarlet red, with deeper scarlet streaks radiating from the blossom end. I have never seen this on any Earliana fruit I have grown. The fruits are medium-sized, globular, and weigh from 4 to 6 ounces. They hang in clusters of 4 to 6.
The Earliana most commonly under cultivation is orange red with deep green leaves and a different number of seed cavities (usually 2) than the scarlet-red sort, which has 8 to 12. Campbell Soup Company developed a potato-leafed variety of Earliana, and several agricultural stations have also created improved strains. A pink version called June Pink or Landreth, is also in circulation among seed savers. Generally, regardless of the fruit color, Earliana begins to yield crops two months after planting. Even though it is considered one of the best early varieties, one that I can always count on by the third week of July, it has never yielded ripe fruit in June in my garden, even on plants set out in May in full bloom. The fruit simply stays green until mid-July. It has always puzzled me how the tomato earned the name June Pink.
When American tomatoes are discussed for the period 1815 to 1865, Early Large Red is most consistently mentioned, even though it was known earlier in France during the eighteenth century. It is not a true commercial variety in the same sense as Earliana just discussed, for it is very close to its wild Mexican counterpart. Yet where large red tomatoes were grown in the country before the universal acceptance of this vegetable, Early Large Red was indeed the most common. In fact, it was recommended for kitchen gardens in several early garden books, including George Lindley’s Guide to Orchard and Kitchen Garden (1831, 555), and appeared repeatedly in horticultural works throughout the nineteenth century. The Album Vilmorin (1869, 12) depicted it under the name tomate rouge grosse, and H. Dwight Smith of Arlington, Virginia crossed it with Feejee to create the Arlington tomato introduced by B. K. Bliss & Sons of New York in 1873. Other heirloom tomatoes may be more exotic, but this one remains a classic in its plain old-fashioned way.
Early Large Red was not grown as a table fruit to be eaten raw; rather, its strength lies in its uses for cooking, in soups, ketchups, and especially in sauces. The fruit is red, the flavor excellent, but the flesh is mealy, as one would expect in a paste-type tomato. The vines are small — no longer than 4 feet — so the tomato is well adapted to small gardens. Most of the fruits are smooth, although some have light ribbing, and are about 2 1/2 inches in diameter. The skins are tough, a feature noted by Fearing Burr in 1865. Perfect fruit will contain 9 seed chambers. In humid weather the fruit is subject to cracking, and mature fruit even in dry weather will have distinct crack scars at regular intervals on the tomato. These white lines are typical on many early prehybrid tomato sorts.
Golden Queen was introduced in 1882 by the Livingston Seed Company and has remained one of the standards for yellow tomatoes of this type. Indeed, aside from Golden Trophy, Yellow Brandywine, and a few others, it might be appropriate to say that Golden Queen has few rivals and has never been improved upon. It has excellent color and flavor, and the vines are prolific throughout most of the season.
The vines are large, anywhere from 6 to 8 feet in length, and therefore require staking. The fruits hang in clusters of 4 to 6 and ripen from yellow to a deep persimmon gold. Both the skin and flesh are yellow-orange. Some fruits are faintly flushed with red in field tests, but I would consider this evidence of crossing. USDA seed (NSL 27357) also exhibits this. The fruit is smooth, with few creases or ribs. The blossom end is also smooth, not sunken as in the apple-shaped varieties. The fruit may measure 3 1/2 inches in diameter and about 2 1/2 inches thick, weighing anywhere from 6 to 8 ounces or more.
Since the flavor of this tomato is mild, almost sweet, it is improved with acid such as lemon juice or a lemon-flavored vinegar. Vinegar flavored with lemon verbena is perfect.
The Vilmorin garden book (1885, 571) described this Victorian tomato under the name tomate jaune ronde and equated it with several other varieties (red, pink, purple) in terms of size and overall shape. The fruit is supposed to be perfectly round like a Ping-Pong ball and 2 inches in diameter. It hangs in clusters of 6 to a stem, as shown in the old woodcut. The variety was mentioned as early as 1867 under the name Yellow Plum, and at that time was sold almost exclusively in England because it was excellent for growing in tubs.
The Greengage now in circulation from USDA seed (NSL 27022) is somewhat smaller, with fruit 1 1/2 inches in diameter and two seed chambers to a berry, and is lemon yellow in color. In fruit that is true to type, the jelly mass in slightly underripe fruit is green. This turns yellow when the fruit it ripe. The flavor of this tomato is the best of this small type.
This variety entered seed-saving collections from John Hartman, an Indianapolis seedsman. It is the same small yellow tomato as Lindley’s yellow cherry-shaped tomato (1831, 555), Burr’s yellow cherry tomato (1865, 641), and the yellow cherry tomato sold in James Vick’s Illustrated Catalogue and Floral Guide (1872, 113). It is also illustrated in the Album Vilmorin (1868, 19). The tomato appears to be the prototype yellow cherry tomato grown during much of the nineteenth century in this country.
The vines are long, rambling to 8 or 10 feet, and thus require staking. The fruit hangs in clusters of 6 to 8, and individual tomatoes are larger than a true gooseberry, and well flavored. The fruit color is lemon yellow. This variety is one of the first to come to fruit, and it remains productive until frost. The plants are somewhat frost tolerant at 28° to 32° F.
George Lindley (1831, 555) treated this tomato as the yellow counterpart to Early Large Red. In a growout of tomatoes conducted in England in 1867, seed from the firm of Henry Veitch & Sons in Chelsea was obtained to test this variety against newer sorts. The fruits were described as yellow, large, and deeply ribbed. Lest there be any doubt that the American Large Yellow was the same, the Album Vilmorin (1854, 5) illustrated the tomato even to the brilliant yellow color. The yellow is in the skin, since the flesh is white, and some of the seed chambers are hollow, so there is no uniform jelly mass to enhance the pigmentation.
Of all the large yellow sorts, this was the most popular one in nineteenth-century kitchen gardens. It is only one of a handful of tomatoes that survived from my grandfather’s once extensive tomato collection. It is one of the tomatoes that drew me into seed saving. My grandfather had gotten seed from William E. Hickman (his father-in-law), for it was one of the tomatoes the Hickmans raised for market in Philadelphia. My great-grandmother used the tomato to make ginger-flavored yellow tomato preserves.
The tomato is a vigorous grower and requires staking. It is not a true varietal tomato, rather a type of species tomato that existed in Mexico from pre-Columbian times. It became popular in the United States following the war with Mexico in the 1840s. Because it is a species tomato, the sexual structure of the flower is such that the tomato will cross more easily with varieties around it, and therefore it should be isolated by 50 feet.
I used this tomato to cross with Power’s Heirloom, a white paste tomato from Virginia, producing Beauty of Devon. One of the great pleasures of growing heirloom tomatoes is breeding them to create new ones. Beauty of Devon is more delicately flavored than White Queen.
Lutescent has only recently reentered seed collections, and of all the tomatoes I have selected for this book, this variety is truly the strangest. Tomato expert Dr. Carolyn Male reintroduced this variety under the presumption that it is the same as Honor Bright, a variety originally introduced by Alexander W. Livingston in 1898. It appears to fit Livingston’s descriptions.
The vines of this tomato are large, 4 to 6 feet in length, and therefore require staking. The leaves are pale, sickly yellow, appearing diseased or in need of nourishment. The upper leaves of the vines are blotched with patches of discoloration. The flowers are ivory white, a rare feature in the tomato world. The unripe fruit does not appear green like most tomatoes but is a yellowish parchment color. This gradually darkens as the fruit ripens to yellow, then orange, then red. The fruit hangs in clusters of 6 to 8 and drops from the plants when ripe. When the fruit is red, it is covered with blushes of honey-brown, giving the tomato a shellacked appearance.
The flavor is equally striking. It is pleasantly acidic and surprisingly tomatoey. The tomato plant itself is highly ornamental when in fruit, but so is the fruit when mixed with pink and white varieties. This is one of those Victorian botanical whimsies that also happens to be good eating.
African-American tomatoes are difficult to document, and even fewer of them are also strikingly beautiful. This is one of my favorite tomatoes, not only for its exquisite appearance but also for its flavor. It also happens to be extremely old and probably misnamed. If anything, it should be called pomme de Haiti, because it is not flat but somewhat apple shaped. The earliest record of this tomato is a botanical drawing in Konrad Gessner’s Historia Plantarum (1561). Gessner’s specimens were doubtless grown from seed only recently brought from the Caribbean. Whatever its true origin, the tomato has been associated since the 1550s with the island now home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It is known to have entered North America in 1793 with the Creole refugees who fled the slave uprising in Haiti. Beyond this, documentation of the tomato has remained elusive; little effort was made in the nineteenth century to investigate the plant varieties grown in the kitchen gardens of American blacks.
The tomato was introduced into the seed-saving network through Dr. Carolyn Male, who obtained seed from the collection of Norbert Parreira of Helliner. France. Carolyn gave me seed, I in turn donated seed to Seed Savers Exchange, and now the tomato is gaining in popularity. The plants are large, with vines reaching 6 to 8 feet. Staking is recommended. The fruit hangs in clusters of 4 to 6, each tomato about 2 1/2 inches in diameter. The fruit is lobed, oftentimes with raised ridges between the lobes. The fruit is vermilion red and divided into four seed chambers, just as Gessner depicted them in 1561.
The flavor of the tomato is mild and can be enhanced with a simple dash of salt. Balsamic vinegar brings out a distinctive fruitiness that recommends this tomato for spicy salsa combinations.
Of all the types of tomatoes cultivated in traditional American kitchen gardens, the currant tomato is closest to the ancestral wild tomatoes of Central America and northern South America. French explorer Aédéc Feuilléc collected one of the earliest specimens to be depicted in a botanical work during an expedition to Peru in 1709–11. Feuillée (I7I3) actually found the tomato on the beach. It is difficult to know for certain what sort of plant it came from because the specimen depicted in his book (3: plate 25) is one of the most pathetic tomatoes ever shown in any botanical work, all stem, five limpish leaves, two flowers, and one berry — and he dared illustrate such a thing with the king’s money. Furthermore, while he claimed the tomato was of medical value, Feuillée never really said what to do with it, so we are left guessing how the Peruvians put it to use. I have tried growing a USDA tomato called PI 143527 (Peru) — readily available through Seed Savers Exchange — and it appears to come close to the tomato of Feuillée.
All of the garden varieties of the currant tomato are crosses or selections of the wild forms, with improvements in fruit size or habit of growth bred into them over the years. Nonetheless, the currant tomato is a distinctive species, with small, delicate leaves, different flowers, and a more acrid odor in the leaves. The stems of the plants are small and spindly, never developing into a trunk like other garden sorts. Without support, the plants ramble over the ground and choke out any small plants growing near them. Historically, they were usually grown over fences both as a form of containment and because the fruit was most ornamental from that angle.
The tiny fruit hangs in clusters resembling red currants, hence the name. Aside from red and yellow kinds, there are also two basic berry types, one with thick skin that cracks when ripe, and one with thin skin that drops to the ground when ripe. Both fruit types are intensely flavored and can be used for juicing purposes or for sauces. Under an article called “New Receipts” in Miss Leslie’s Magazine (1843, 103), Eliza Leslie published a recipe for pickling “button tomatoes.” This is one of the old American folk names for this tomato, which was put up in pickles both while green and when ripe. The pickles were used like capers for garnishing elaborate roasts and other fancy dishes. Currant tomatoes were also sun-dried when ripe to make a type of tomato raisin.
Currant tomatoes are very hardy and generally withstand light frosts provided there is no strong wind. Since they reseed readily, the tomatoes can become invasive in the garden. They are also capable of crossing with other tomatoes, so they should be isolated by at least 50 feet. Two to four plants are usually sufficient for a small garden.
The fig, or pear-shaped, tomato has been raised in North American gardens at least since the eighteenth century, both as food and as an ornamental. George Lindley (1831, 555) noted both the red and yellow varieties, although the so-called red pear-shaped was the most common of the two. The Album Vilmorin (1857, 8) illustrated the red sort, while the red and yellow were mentioned by Fearing Burr (1865, 633–34, 642). The fruit of both the red and yellow sorts is small, generally 1 to 1 1/2 inches in length. The vines are prolific and more bushlike in habit than many other tomatoes, so they do not require staking. Like Riesentraube, the pear-shaped tomatoes are very sensitive to frost and cold weather.
The name fig tomato does not denote a specific variety as much as a specific type and its culinary use. Any small, red, teardrop-shaped tomato can serve as a fig tomato, but certain strains evolved through selection with meatier flesh and fewer seeds, two traits useful in creating tomato figs. The red varieties best suited to figs were grouped together as fig tomatoes during the 1840s when the recipe came into vogue. It was considered an inexpensive way to create homemade fig substitutes. The following recipe illustrating how this was done was developed by a Mrs. Steiger of Washington, D.C., and is taken from Josiah T. Marshall’s Farmer’s and the Emigrant’s Complete Guide (1854, 159).
Take six pounds of sugar to one peck (or sixteen pounds) of the fruit. Scald and remove the skin of the fruit in the usual way. (Book them over a fire, their own juice being sufficient without the addition of water, until the sugar penetrates and they are clarified. They are then taken out, spread on dishes, flattened and dried in the sun. A small quantity of the syrup should be occasionally sprinkled over them while drying: after which, pack them down in boxes, treating each layer with powdered sugar. The syrup is afterward concentrated and bottled for use. They keep well from year to year, and retain surprisingly their flavor, which is nearly that of the best quality of fresh figs. The pear-shaped or single tomatoes answer the purpose best. Ordinary brown sugar may be used, a large portion of which is retained in the syrup.
Riesentraube was reintroduced commercially in this country in 1993 by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange of Earlysville, Virginia. Seed came from Dr. Carolyn Male, but she had obtained it earlier from seed saver Curtis D. Choplin of North Augusta, South Carolina. Choplin had obtained his seed from Germany. The trail led ultimately to the seed bank at Gateisleben, where the tomato had been in storage for many years. Of all the recent success stories with saving heirloom tomatoes, Riesentraube must be considered a guidebook example, because today it is one of the most popular cherry-type heirloom tomatoes raised by home gardeners.
The exact age and origin of Riesentraube is unknown. I saw the tomato near Gyöngyös, Hungary, in 1983 and subsequently discovered an 1857 Pennsylvania German recipe for making tomato wine with it. That recipe was recently published in Off the Vine. The Hungarians in Gyöngyös called the tomato kecske csöcsü; (goat tit), in reference to its peculiar shape. Only recently (1995), a similarly shaped tomato (but of a different color) has come to light in Greece. Thus the Riesentraube is a tomato with a fascinating history that may take many years to unravel.
The name of the tomato is German, meaning “giant grape,” but refers specifically to the Grapes of Eshcol mentioned in the Bible. Like those grapes, this tomato offers the promise of a land of plenty. To say that the tomato is productive is an understatement. The vines blossom with huge bouquets of yellow flowers, anywhere from 20 to 40 per stem. This alone makes the plant showy, even when there is no fruit. The flowers turn into large bunches of small red, heart-shaped tomatoes that hang down like clusters of grapes, as shown in the drawing. Each tomato has tiny nipple on the tip, hence the Hungarian name. The tomatoes are primarily harvested for use in salads. The flavor of the fruit is good and is enhanced by sugar, which is why the tomato is so well adapted to wine making. Tomato wine made from this variety resembles dry sherry.
The plants are extremely sensitive to frost and will languish in the fall when the night temperatures drop into the low forties. It is best not to count on this tomato late in the season in areas where nights are cool even in the summer.
James J. H. Gregory of Marblehead, Massachusetts, carried seed for a striped Mexican tomato as early as 1864 and circulated seed for it along with several other Mexican tomatoes to editors of various horticultural journals in 1872. The Rural Carolinian (1872, 435) took particular note of the tomatoes, but Gregory’s Mammoth Chihuahua (a red variety) always solicited comments. His yellow-striped variety did not, and it became lost in the frantic shuffle for new hybrids during the market gardening boom following the Civil War. What is known for certain about it is that it came from Mexico where, according to Tracy (1918, 15), bicolored tomatoes have been documented as early as 1651. Whether Gregory’s bicolor was the progenitor of the tomato featured in this sketch is another matter, probably not. A tomato called Marvel Striped, which was brought recently from Mexico, exhibits a number of features that suggest Shenandoah is the product of selective breeding.
The tomato was found among the Mennonites in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and has been introduced commercially under the names Old German and Mammoth German Gold. These names are quite unsatisfactory, since there are a number of other heirloom tomatoes with the same names. I have opted to call it Shenandoah to avoid all confusion about its origin, which is not German in any case. There were quite enough Mennonite missionaries in Mexico in the nineteenth century to disseminate seed among their coreligionists back home. Yet the hidden hand behind this tomato may be more botanical than religious, the product of Mennonite Jacob B. Garber (1800–1886) and his far-reaching network of horticulturists. All that can be said with certainty is that the Pennsylvania Dutch grew fond of bicolored tomatoes, and this variety is one of the best in the heap.
The vines are not large, perhaps 5 feet at their very longest, but staking is essential. The fruit is enormous, often weighing more than 16 ounces. The plants are not heavy producers, but the fruit is excellent. It is basically yellow with strongly defined lobes. Red streaks radiate from the blossom end and penetrate the tomato to the core so that when it is sliced, it presents a brilliant array of rich red, orange, gold, and yellow marbling. All the fruits exhibit traits of double tomatoes, which may be the result of the flower structure. Due to the large size of the fruit, there is cracking on the stem end during cool weather and on the blossom end during hot, humid weather. This is not a shipping tomato. It is best consumed when picked.
On the other hand, the plants are quite frost tolerant, virtually untouched by 28° F when Riesentraube, which I had growing not far away, was cut to the ground within an hour.
Trophy is a tomato originally developed for market gardens and for canning. Historically, it was one of the first tomato varieties to revolutionize American tomato growing. The instant success of Trophy encouraged American seedsmen to take tomato breeding seriously; thus Trophy initiated a long line of nineteenth-century hybrids that have since become tomato classics.
The original strain of Trophy was created by a Dr. Hand of Baltimore, Maryland, and introduced commercially in 1870 by Colonel George E. Waring, Jr., of Newport, Rhode Island. Waring sold the seeds for $5 a packet and offered a $100 premium for the largest specimen grown by his customers. This savvy piece of marketing with a tomato variety that also happened to be very good caused a sensation. Within a year, nearly every major American seed company was carrying Trophy and posting premiums. The American Agriculturist (1870, 445) stated that the tomato was “unequaled by any variety we have tested” and distributed seed to customers who renewed their subscriptions.
The woodcut from the 1870 American Agriculturist shows the tomato very well. It is obvious that the cross was at that time unstable, because plants were yielding both smooth fruit (note the one upturned) and heavily lobed specimens (visible in the back). The smooth tomato on the left is also badly cracked, not a high mark among growers, and a recurring problem with many of these early varieties during rainy weather. The 1871 advertisement of B. K. Bliss & Sons of New York shows a good cross section. Any tomato grown today as Trophy that does not slice like that specimen is not a true Trophy.
The plants are dense and bright green, rather upright in growth, and in need of staking. The fruit is scarlet red and hangs in clusters of 4 to 5, each weighing from 5 to 6 ounces. The shape of the tomato is oblate, about 3 1/2 inches in diameter and 2 1/2 inches thick. Typical fruit is heavily ribbed, not smooth like the ones shown in the old engraving, with a distinct flower scar on the blossom end. The interior of the fruit is red, with 6 to 8 seed chambers divided like the 1871 Bliss advertisement. The flavor is good and holds up well when canned. Thus, the tomato is also excellent for cooked recipes as well as summer salads.
Trophy produced a yellow sport called Golden Trophy, which was introduced by B. K. Bliss & Sons of New York in 1875. It resembles Trophy in all respects except pigmentation, and like all yellow-fruited varieties, it is less productive than the red. However, in his 1889 growout of the leading tomato varieties, N. Hallock (1890, 294) felt that Golden Trophy was “by far the best and most solid yellow sort grown.” He placed it first, even before Golden Queen.
Both the red and yellow forms of Trophy can be used in the following recipe of Cornelia Bedford, which appeared in the household magazine Table Talk (1897, 247).
Tomato Kromeskies Recipe
Victorian tomato breeders developed a number of white tomatoes that were once quite popular. Among these was Shah, also known as White Mikado (a light white-yellow variety), and Ivory Ball, a small creamy white tomato also called White Apple and shown in the woodcut. But of all the white varieties, only one stands out as truly special. That tomato is White Queen.
In Off the Vine, Dr. Carolyn Male has promoted White Queen as the best tasting of the heirloom whites, and I agree with her. The only problem with White Queen is that there are several tomatoes in circulation with this name; only one is the true variety. The original White Queen was released in 1882 by its creator, Alexander W. Livingston. It is a vigorous climber and a heavy producer, so the vines require sturdy stakes. The fruit has white skin and very pale, parchment-yellow flesh. There should be 8 to 9 seed cavities, and fruits should range in size from 3 to 3 1/2 inches in diameter and about 2 inches thick.
The flavor of White Queen is different from any other I have tasted. It is fragrant, with a slight hint of rosewater. The fruit makes a delicate white tomato sauce for fish, yet it can also be served with fruits like frais du bois, with a splash of rosewater and sugar to enhance the fruitiness. A Gewürtztraminer wine matches this tomato very well, as does cassis in champagne, diced mango, and a host of other fruit combinations.
Yellow Peach was introduced in 1862 by James J. H. Gregory of Marblehead, Massachusetts. The variety originated in France. In N. Hallock’s 1890 field test of tomatoes, he remarked that the flavor was mild, sweetish, “but no peach flavor.” Why should anyone expect that? “Of little value, except as a novelty,” he continued. Actually, the tomato is charming, and the flavor is acid, juicy, and altogether good.
The tomato is circulated today under a variety of names, including Garden Peach, Yellow Peach, and pêche Jaune (its original French name), as well as the very descriptive sorbet de citron. As this last name would imply, the tomato does indeed look like a ball of lemon sherbet, and just to see how far I could push that resemblance, I once made a sorbet with the tomato. It was a complete surprise and happily a success.
The vines are highly productive of fruit all season. The fruit is small, round, slightly fuzzy like a peach, and pale yellow-white in color. On many fruits, the cheeks are blushed with pink, thus giving the tomato the appearance of a miniature white peach. The skin of the tomato gives it its pale yellow color, since the flesh is white or almost colorless.
In 1873 H. Beyer of New London, Iowa, advertised seed for a “new” peach tomato in the American Agriculturist (1873, III). This marked the introduction from France of the Pink Peach (pêche rosée), which now also bears the name Tennessee Peach Fuzz. The pink variety resembles its yellow counterpart in fuzziness and in peachlike appearance, but the pink is generally hollow inside like a paste tomato. It is thought to be a cross between a pink plum tomato and the older Yellow Peach. The fruit drops when ripe, and a light frost will cause all the fruit to drop regardless of ripeness.
Both the pink and yellow varieties do not bruise easily and are therefore good for shipping. They also keep long after picking and make excellent marmalades. When used directly from the garden, they are ideal salad tomatoes.
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Photos and Illustrations Courtesy William Woys Weaver.