Grow a Rainbow of Heirloom Tomatoes
Heirloom tomatoes, summer's finest bounty, will add variety to your meals, and biodiversity to your garden. This article details the rainbow of colors available in heirloom tomatoes. Part one of a series on heirloom vegetables.
When I think of heirloom vegetables, romantic notions of windswept hillsides and fields of sunflowers come to mind. I picture a sturdy wooden table arranged with rustic linens and slender glasses of wine, each one catching a ray of sunlight and reflecting onto the summer palate of oranges, reds and yellows that make up a bowl of freshly prepared Caprese salad. There is nothing quite like the combination of heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil and buffalo mozzarella cheese. Mix in a little olive oil, salt and pepper and you have the quintessential summer faire of the gods. Sure, you can make it with regular tomatoes, but the difference in flavor is like the difference between cheesecake and cardboard. Heirloom tomatoes provide exotic flavor, color and biodiversity to your life from garden to table.
By definition, an heirloom is something that is passed down from generation to generation, in hopes of preserving the memory of days gone by. In the case of heirloom tomatoes, varieties from around 100 years ago are still in circulation today thanks to thoughtful growers of yesteryear who carefully saved seeds and handed them down to their children. Seed banks and catalog companies that specialize in providing heirlooms to curious gardeners have opened the door to a world of variety ordinarily unavailable to the public.
Heirloom seeds have survived the test of time, exposure and ecological change, and are therefore more disease and pest resistant than many of their younger counterparts. Also, with supermarkets continuing to reduce the amount of biodiversity available in their produce isles, and with the introduction of genetically modified fruits and vegetables, the idea of heirloom produce is even more appealing to those who want to know - and trust - their food sources.
Some of my favorite heirloom tomatoes are chosen more for color rather than taste, even though their taste is mind-blowing, simply because there are a rainbow of colors to choose from. Each year I plant at least one of every color to insure a feast for the eyes all summer long. Let’s look at that rainbow, shall we?
Reds/Pinks: Other than the increasingly popular “Brandywine” tomato, there are so many reds and pinks out there: Costaluto Genovese – a medium to large, ribbed fruit; Burbank Red Slicing – as close to a standard tomato as heirlooms get, with much more flavor; Old German – huge red tomatoes with a blush of green on top; German Queen – a large beefsteak variety also with some color variation; Arkansas Traveler - a beefsteak tomato that will satisfy the Henry VIII in all of us. Mortgage Lifter – famous for its size, which was so said to be so big that it could help a farm out of foreclosure; and Amish Paste – a plum tomato like the traditional Roma. Some catalogues contradict each other when listing some heirlooms whose lineage is somewhat unclear: Ispolin – a softball sized flat tomato molted with oranges and pinks; and my all-time favorite, Stupice – a Czechoslovakian salad tomato that is, without fail, the first on the block to provide bright red, flavorful tomatoes every year. This plant breaks from tradition with its potato leaf foliage that also adds variety to your garden.
Oranges: Jaunne Flamme is an orange tomato that produces salad tomato sized fruit. The bright color and consistently sweet flavor make it a perfect choice for those trying to venture out into new tomato territory. Tigerella, and Tigerlike are both striped tomatoes that delight the eyes and perk up any dish with their unusual color; Orange Oxheart is indeed a heart-shaped tomato that breaks the mold of traditional flat-bottomed tomatoes. In some catalogues but not others, the Persimmon tomato is listed as an heirloom. It is shaped and colored like a persimmon, but don’t be fooled, as its sweet tomato flavor is nothing like its look-alike.
Yellow: I have tried many yellow tomatoes and have found few to compare with the delicate sunny flavor of the Yellow Pear. These sweet little teardrops of summer goodness hardly make it in from the garden, and mostly serve as tasty snacks while gardening. Even among the Yellow Pear, I have found one particular Yellow Pear from Seeds of Change to be sweeter than the others. For some other interesting yellows try Yellow Perfection – a larger salad tomato; Pineapple – a most interesting variety that is streaked with red throughout the center; and Garden Peach – named appropriately because it actually has fuzz! Don’t let that deter you from trying this unusual gem. The flavor is outstanding.
Green: Admittedly, the only green tomato I have tried to grow is the famous Green Zebra. With its dark green stripes over a soft green exterior that leans toward yellow if left on the vine a little longer, the Green Zebra is a terrific addition to any dish for diversity and a change of pace. If you haven’t tried this one, be sure to put it on your shopping list for summer.
Purple and Black: This year I am growing Cherokee Purple – a large tomato with a purple interior and green shoulders. Purple Calabash, similar to its relative Red Calabash, has a molten interior that is dark and mysterious. Adventurous tomato tasters will find it full of flavor and hefty in size. Black Plum is another plum tomato similar to a traditional Roma, but with greenish-black shoulders, much like its larger counterpart, Black, which has the same markings in a regular sized tomato. Black Krim is another popular choice for those with a flare for the dramatic.
White: If you are looking for something new and different, try Nebraska Wedding – a white medium to large sized tomato. Unfortunately this one didn’t do so well in my coastal garden. Great White, however, was a huge success - a huge plant, huge tomatoes, and huge flavor. One slice would almost completely cover a slice of bread, and the color was throughout with little yellow seeds. This was one of the most interesting tomatoes I’ve grown in years.The key to heirloom tomatoes is experimentation. Whether you are buying them at a grocery store, or growing them yourself, choosing different varieties each time is the best way to find what works for your garden or your palette. Each year I have my trusted, foolproof varieties, but I always choose at least 3 or 4 new heirlooms to try. Thankfully, we are beginning to see the phenomenon of heirlooms taking hold in gourmet and farmers markets, so they are becoming more accessible to mainstream shoppers. Just as Julia Child was influential in the appearance of gourmet vegetables in supermarkets, so can we be influential by demanding diversity and inclusion of heirlooms at our local markets. If you can’t get heirlooms where you live, and you aren’t able to grow them yourself, ask your store manager to stock them every time you go shopping. With a little effort and curiosity, soon everyone will be able to enjoy the wonder of biodiversity and fabulous flavor.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christy Wilhelmi is owner of Gardenerd.com, the ultimate resource for garden nerds. She is a board member of Ocean View Farms Organic Community Garden in Mar Vista, California, and gardens almost exclusively with heirloom vegetables.