The more tomato varieties you grow – especially if you delve into the wonderful world of heirlooms – the more you realize that not all tomato plants look alike. Look closely at the leaves and you will find lots of variations; once you become familiar with a particularly favorite variety, you may even be able to distinguish it early on just by its leaves. Of course, that may also indicate that you are so deep into the obsession that you need help (hand raised!).
The vast majority of tomato varieties have leaves that have teeth – serrations – on the edges, which is referred to as “regular leaf” foliage. This is the dominant trait. It doesn’t infer any particular quality or health factor. It just is what the genes in the variety dictate. Some commonly grown varieties with regular leaf foliage are Sun Gold, German Johnson, Roma, Big Beef and Kellogg’s Breakfast.
Here are two tomatoes with regular leaf foliage.
A small percentage of tomatoes are produced on plants whose leaves are smooth at the edge. Because of the strong similarity to potato plant foliage, these varieties are called “potato leaf” – a recessive trait.
Perhaps 5 percent of heirloom tomatoes or less carry this gene, but it makes for a strikingly beautiful tomato plant. Some very popular, wonderful heirlooms have this foliage type. Among them are 'Brandywine', 'Green Giant', 'Lucky Cross' and 'Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom'.
These plants exhibit potato leaf foliage very well.
Tomatoes that are part of the relatively rare category called dwarf have darker green leaves that are nearly crinkly in texture – this is known as “rugose” foliage.
There are dwarf tomatoes with regular leaf and potato leaf foliage, as shown below. Before the dwarf tomato breeding project (which I co-lead) came along, dwarf tomatoes were very rare indeed. Examples of regular leaf dwarf varieties are 'Dwarf Champion', 'Dwarf Kelly Green' and 'Rosella Purple'. A few potato leaf dwarf varieties are 'TastyWine', 'Dwarf Sweet Sue' and 'Dwarf Emerald Giant'.
Three very unique tomato foliage types are shown below. In the first case the plant resembles a carrot as much as a tomato; this is a Russian variety known as 'Silvery Fir Tree'.
Second is a variety with green and white variegated foliage, called not very creatively 'Variegated'.
Finally, comes the most odd tomato of all, with foliage held tight in clusters up the stem (I call it the “poodle” tomato). First appearing as a mutation in the 1950s, it is called 'Stick'.
Craig Lehoullier is an heirloom tomato expert (and amateur plant breeder). He currently is on book promotion tour for Epic Tomatoes, setting upcoming tomato workshop events, updating his website and blog, devising a totally new, all-heirloom weekly podcast, shooting a tomato know-how video series and pondering topics for future books. He is co-leading the Dwarf Tomato breeding project to put 36 new dwarf-growing, open-pollinated tomatoes in the hands of various small seed companies. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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