Heirloom Tomato Varieties

“Oh, my! That’s an interesting vegetable. What is it?” I looked at the colorful display of greens and reds and purples that made up the market stand, admiring, in particular, the luscious glossy red of the Beefsteak tomatoes. Between the red tomatoes and the yellow and green zucchini, there was a small, roundish vegetable that was quite black.

“They’re tomatoes.” The market vendor smiled at me. Another customer approached and chose a small basket of the black vegetable.

“And they’re delicious,” the customer added. “Not as acidic as the red ones.”

“Not very attractive, either,” I muttered under my breath. A little louder, I added, “They look bruised and bad.”

“Not at all,” the vendor bagged the purchases and handed them to the customer who moved on to the next market stand. “That’s the natural color. It’s an heirloom tomato.”

tomatoes on table with utensils
Edgar Castrejon / Unsplash

“Heirloom tomato?” I queried. I never thought there was such a thing.

“I also have some yellow tomatoes in my garden plot. They weren’t quite ready this week. I’ll have them for next week’s market.”

“I’ve seen the yellow tomatoes,” I replied. “But never the black ones. I’ll take a small basket. Not very attractive, but if they taste as good as you and that other customer suggests, I may be convinced. I’ll take some of the red ones, too. Just in case.”

I took home my purchases and decided right away to try one of the black tomatoes. I didn’t want to hesitate and avoid. Better try the tomato while I still possessed an ounce of bravery. I washed one, gently dried it off and sliced it thin. I picked up one slice and placed it in my mouth, standing close to the sink in case I had to spit it out. I didn’t. The taste filled my mouth and I was impressed.

“Wow!” I finished making a sandwich, adding the thinly sliced black tomatoes. I now had a new favorite sandwich filling.

I hadn’t realized there were so many shapes, sizes, and yes, colors of tomatoes and that there was such a thing as an heirloom tomato. Not to mention a black one.

It made me start to question my standard selection of tomatoes. In the summer, I preferred the Beefsteak tomato: big and hearty, this heirloom tomato was juicy with a little bit of sweetness. It’s easy enough to grow and it mixes well in soups and stews.

I also enjoy the Tiny Tim cherry tomatoes, just to plop in my mouth or add to a salad. But I was quickly learning there were many varieties—and colors—of cherry tomatoes as well. I was even told that yellow tomatoes and yellow cherry tomatoes were less acidic than the red ones.

For the longest time, it didn’t matter what people recommended. I liked my tomatoes: red, yellow, and now deep purple (black). I understand that there are also pink, orange, mottled, and yes, even striped tomatoes, but I have yet to try them. Regardless of the color, all tomatoes are tastiest when freshly ripened and just picked off the vine.

With over 10,000 cultivars of tomatoes, what’s the best choice? My preference is the heirloom tomato, the ones that have been grown from their own seeds and not cross-pollinated with other tomato cultivars to create a more disease-resistant tomato. In other words, I really don’t care for the hybrid, the tough tomato that lacks the heirloom fragility, but also its intensity of flavor.

Since World War II, tomatoes have been cross-pollinated numerous times in an attempt to create the ultimate tomato: the one that resists disease and pests, the one that lasts the longest, the one that won’t bruise so easily and will look the prettiest on the store display.

The local tomatoes we used to enjoy, either off the vine or purchased at a local farmers’ market, have been replaced to a large extent. Tomatoes are grown in great quantities all over the world, inside greenhouses and outside in places where year-round growing possibilities exist.

Mass production has done wonders for the shipping and grocery store industries as tomatoes meet the consumer demands for availability year round. However, this mass production of hybrid tomatoes has done little for the quality, and fewer people today even remember what a REAL tomato tastes like.

Hence the craze for heirloom tomatoes, especially amongst home gardeners, myself included. Amongst the many heritage tomatoes to choose from, here are a few of the most common.

Beefsteak

Beefsteak tomatoes are a large, very juicy tomato, common in North America. This variety includes the Red Ponderosa and the Coustralee variety. Beefsteak tomatoes can grow as large as 4 pounds in weight and are very high in fiber and Vitamin C. Due to its bright and attractive red color and its size, restaurants prefer Beefsteak tomatoes for sandwiches and burgers.

Alicante

This bright red tomato, medium in size, is a classic breakfast tomato in the United Kingdom, popular due to its taste and its high level of productivity.

Azoychka

#azoychka #azoychkaheirloom #tomato #yellowtomatoes

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A yellow to pale-orange Beefsteak variety, the Azoychka is very large. This tomato is a Russian heirloom that is similar to the Lemony (aka Limmony), a sweet, tangy yellow tomato that has become popular in North America.

Big Rainbow

This is another Beefsteak variety. Big Rainbows are a large, yellow fruit with red swirls. It has a mild, slightly sweet flavor.

Brandywine

This is a large, pink tomato of the Beefsteak variety. The flavor is great—it’s been dubbed as the tomato that really tastes tomato-y. Unfortunately, Brandywines have a very low productivity rate.

Ferris Wheel

1 lb 13 oz! Salsa in my future. #ferriswheeltomato #heirloomtomatoes #harvest #victoryseeds #homegrowntomatoes

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This pink tomato was developed in 1894 by the John A. Salzer Seed Company. It’s a large, Beefsteak variety with lots of tomato-y flavor.

Garden Peach

A small, 2 to 3-ounce, round, yellow tomato, sometimes with streaks of red and/or pink, this tomato has a fuzzy, velvety skin similar to peaches. Full of rich flavor, the Garden Peach is a native of South America, particularly Peru, where it’s called Coconas. North American gardens started including it in their gardens in the 1860s.

Gardener’s Delight

A small, red tomato, with high-yielding plants, the Gardener’s Delight is a tasty bite-sized tomato. Some would describe this variety as a cherry tomato.

Great White

Regardless of its name, this is a pale yellow tomato, large like a Beefsteak. This tomato features fleshy skin and tasty, sweet, almost melon-like flavor. The nice thing about this tomato, other than its taste, is that it has few seeds.

Lillian’s Yellow

Another yellow tomato, this one medium in size. It boasts a rich, creamy flavor.

Matt’s Wild Cherry

A tiny cherry tomato, Matt’s Wild Cherry is deep red with a tender smooth texture. Smaller than most cherry tomato types, this one is a wild tomato from Mexico. It’s a soft fruit with a lower yield than other cherry tomato varieties, and its flavor is sweet due to its high sugar content.

Red Current

Perhaps the tiniest cherry tomato cultivated so far, many of these tomatoes are no bigger than a pea. Red Currents boast a rich, sweet-somewhat-tart flavor with a firm, juicy texture.

Yellow Pear

Another small, yellow tomato, these fruits are named after their pear shape. This tomato is lower in acidity than other small, cherry tomatoes, and its flesh is firmer.

As for the dark purple, almost black, heirlooms, here are a few to consider trying:

Black Beauty

Known as the world’s darkest tomato, or at least the darkest tomato that we know so far, Black Beauty is meaty, fleshy, and full of anthocyanin, the same antioxidant that is found in blueberries and blackberries.

Its color is, you guessed it, very dark, so much so that the skin on some Black Beauties turn solid blue-black. Some believe that this tomato is the best tasting tomato to be harvested, richly smooth and savory. Black beauty grows well, stores well, and the flavor intensifies at room temperature.

Black Krim

A purple, somewhat brown Beefsteak-size tomato, this variety originated from the Crimean Peninsula, off the coast of the Isle of Krim on the Black Sea. While Black Krim is large in size, it’s rather low in productivity.

Cherokee Purple

A brownish-purple Beefsteak variety, the Cherokee Purple is medium to large in size, but low in productivity.

Growing Tomatoes

With so many varieties (cultivars) of tomatoes to choose from, it’s hard to know where to start. We all have our taste preferences, so the best thing to do is to visit a local farmers market, see what varieties grow locally, and try the different tomatoes to decide for yourself which ones you like best.

Save the seeds from your preferred tomatoes, drying them on a piece of paper towel and storing (once fully dry) in a sealed container until the beginning of the next growing season. Plant the seeds (paper towel and all) in rich garden soil, indoors first.

When the plants are about 6-8 inches tall, and the last frost is history, plant outdoors in a sunny location. You won’t know which ones grow best in your garden space until you try. It’s all about preferences, a little bit of know-how and a whole lot of experimentation. So, grow your favorite tomatoes and enjoy the fruits of your labor, be it red, green, yellow, white or black.

Written by Emily-Jane Hills Orford

Emily-Jane Hills Orford is an award-winning author of several books, including Gerlinda (CFA 2016) which received an Honorable Mention in the 2016 Readers’ Favorite Book Awards, To Be a Duke (CFA 2014) which was named Finalist and Silver Medalist in the 2015 Next Generation Indie Book Awards and received an Honorable Mention in the 2015 Readers’ Favorite Book Awards. She writes about the extra-ordinary in life and her books, short stories, and articles are receiving considerable attention. For more information on the author, check out her website at: https://emilyjanebooks.ca

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