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Article

Heirloom Tomatoes

These 19 options are tops in flavor and production

Fine Gardening - Issue 139

Nothing tastes better than an heirloom tomato. Eating a sun-ripened juicy ‘Brandywine’ or a meaty ‘Mortgage Lifter’ means you will never look at grocery-store offerings the same way again. But beyond these two familiar varieties, the vast world of heirloom tomatoes is fairly unknown to many gardeners. Seed catalogs list hundreds of kinds, passed down by gardeners from one generation to the next, so how do you know which one you should grow? The possibilities can be daunting, but I’ve polled a handful of experts from across the country and narrowed down the list to the top 19 varieties. Each has a unique flavor, size, and color, so you are sure to find one to tempt you.

‘Blondkopfchen’

Type: Currant

Habit: Indeterminate

Days to maturity: 50 to 65

Anyone who is still growing ‘Yellow Pear’ should immediately switch to this variety. Its yields are much higher, its flavor is sweet, and it’s juicy—unlike its bland-tasting rival.

‘Black Krim’

Type: Globe

Habit: Indeterminate

Days to maturity: 50 to 65

The violet-brown fruit of this medium-size tomato has raspberry-colored flesh that is exceptionally juicy. Some people describe the flavor as “smoky.”

‘Rose’

Type: Globe

Habit: Indeterminate

Days to maturity: 50 to 65

This is a tomato with unrivaled taste and yield—even better than ‘Brandywine’. The fruit are uniform, and they average just less than a pound each. A sturdy main stem helps support the large fruit load.

‘Green Zebra’

Type: Globe

Habit: Determinate

Days to maturity: 50 to 65

The lemon-lime coloring is indicative of this tomato’s flavor, and its crazy appearance will have your neighbors talking.

‘Jaune Flammé’

Type: Globe

Habit: Indeterminate

Days to maturity: 50 to 65

Don’t be intimidated by the catalogs that describe the flavor of this tomato as similar to apricots. This variety is meaty with a sweet yet tangy taste.

Tomato shapes and sizes

Currant

The tiniest of all tomatoes, currants typically bear fruit in large sprays of grapelike clusters. Individual fruit are usually no bigger than ½ inch in diameter.

Cherry

Ranging in size from ½ inch to 2 inches in diameter, cherry tomatoes are usually round and come in a variety of colors.

Plum

This group encompasses the paste tomatoes, which are usually elongated. Within this group are subgroups of shapes, including the pear and fig. Some plums have a pronounced pointed tip.

 

 

Globe

Globes have the typical tomato shape, with spheres that are generally about the size of a baseball. They can be extremely smooth or can have some slight ribbing on the exterior.

 

Oxheart

Heart-shaped (resembling inverted pears), oxhearts are usually larger than plums (although similar in shape), weighing in at a pound or more. The flesh is usually meaty, like a beefsteak.

Beefsteak

If one word could describe this group, it would be “behemoth.” The fruit of beefsteaks are generally wider than they are long. Irregular shapes and pitting is normal, and all sport meaty flesh.

‘Nebraska Wedding’

Type: Globe

Habit: Determinate

Days to maturity: 50 to 65

This tomato tastes so good that its seeds were often part of a bride’s dowry in the upper Midwest. The reasonably firm, crack-resistant fruit hold up well to a myriad of growing conditions.

‘Gold Rush Currant’

Type: Currant

Habit: Indeterminate

Days to maturity: 45 to 50

‘Gold Rush Currant’ is a supersweet, small-fruiting tomato. The plant can be unwieldy and staking is almost impossible, but the tomato’s candylike flavor is worth the effort.

‘Green Sausage’

Type: Plum

Habit: Determinate

Days to maturity: 65 to 80

This compact plant is perfect to grow in hanging baskets. The green-and-amber-striped fruit have firm flesh with a rich, sweet flavor, making it a great sauce tomato.

‘Aunt Ruby’s German Green’

Type: Beefsteak

Habit: Indeterminate

Days to maturity: 50 to 65

This green-when-ripe variety has a unique citrusy flavor, and it’s delicious when eaten fresh from the garden. The fruit can be oddly shaped and weigh more than a pound each.

‘Black Prince’

Type: Globe

Habit: Indeterminate

Days to maturity: 50 to 65

You can expect fruit that are more brown than black with this selection. The flesh is meaty with few seeds, and it is somewhat juicy.

‘Opalka’

Type: Plum

Habit: Indeterminate

Days to maturity: 80 to 95

An excellent tomato for sauce, ‘Opalka’ produces scores of medium-size fruit with dark, meaty flesh. A strong flavor for a paste tomato is what sets it apart from the rest.

‘Wapsipinicon Peach’

Type: Globe

Habit: Indeterminate

Days to maturity: 65 to 80

If a tomato and a peach mated, this would be their progeny. The 2- to 3-inch-long fruit are covered in fuzz, and the flesh tastes like a lemony grape. As a bonus, this plant is extremely rot resistant.

‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’

Type: Currant

Habit: Indeterminate

Days to maturity: 45 to 50

If you want all the flavor of a full-size tomato crammed into a tiny package, this is your best bet. The large, early yields of bright red fruit will put a smile on any gardener’s face.

‘Hillbilly Potato Leaf’

Type: Beefsteak

Habit: Indeterminate

Days to maturity: 80 to 95

This is a great bicolored slicing tomato. The large fruit are juicy but prone to cracking if the plant is watered inconsistently.

‘Halladay’s Mortgage Lifter’

Type: Beefsteak

Habit: Indeterminate

Days to maturity: 65 to 80

In a taste test of 25 ‘Mortgage Lifter’ varieties, this one rose to the top, producing the best crop of 1- to 2-pound pink beefsteak fruit. Exceptionally meaty and typically crack-free, this tomato has a great old-fashioned flavor.

 

‘White Beauty’

Type: Globe

Habit: Indeterminate

Days to maturity: 65 to 80

Actually pale yellow as opposed to white, this baby tastes just like the classic ‘Brandywine’ but with lower acidity. Thankfully, this tomato is not the least bit watery, as many other white tomatoes can be.

‘Speckled Roman’

Type: Plum

Habit: Indeterminate

Days to maturity: 65 to 80

Truly the most beautiful tomato of the heirlooms, the striped fruit of this unique variety can be up to 5 inches long. It is great for fresh eating, canning, or using in sauces.

‘Orange Strawberry’

Type: Oxheart

Habit: Indeterminate

Days to maturity: 80 to 95

Attractive with heart-shaped fruit, this tomato has a firm yet meaty core. The fruit can get quite large—just shy of 2 pounds in some cases.

‘Riesentraube’

Type: Cherry

Habit: Indeterminate

Days to maturity: 65 to 80

It’s no surprise that the name of this tomato translates to “giant bunches of grapes.” The fruit are set in large sprays in midsummer, and although only 10 to 20 percent of the flowers turn into tomatoes, it’s still enough to call this a high-yield variety.

SOURCES

The following mail-order seed companies offer the widest selection of the heirloom tomatoes featured:

Burpee, Warminster, Pa.; 800-333-5808; www.burpee.com

Reimer Seeds, PO Box 236, Mount Holly, NC 28120; www.reimerseeds.com

Sand Hill Preservation Center, Calamus, Iowa; 563-246-2299; www.sandhillpreservation.com

Seed Savers Exchange, Decorah, Iowa; 563-382-5990; www.seedsavers.org

Danielle Sherry is an associate editor.

Photos: courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange; Victor Schrager

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