There are hundreds and hundreds of heirloom tomato cultivars out there ... big ones, small ones, and every size between. There are myriad colors, shapes and uses. Confronted by such stunning diversity, gardeners often feel overwhelmed — how do you choose? From conversations with fellow gardeners and tomato growers, I've assembled this list of all-time favorites to help point gardeners in the right direction. If you don't know where to start, you can hardly go wrong growing any of the cultivars described here.
I asked Mike Dunton, founder of Victory Seed Company in Molalla, Oregon, for his opinions on these cultivars. Mike has spent the last 15 years working to resurrect and re-introduce the tomatoes of the A.W. Livingston Seed company, which flourished in the final quarter of the 19th century. Mike offers seeds of a number of Livingston and other historic cultivars on his website, which makes worthwhile reading for its dedicated scholarship alone. I knew he'd have some strong opinions about many of these tomato cultivars.
1. ‘Aunt Ruby's German Green’
“Most gardeners do not seem to be familiar with true green-fruited tomatoes,” Mike laments, adding, “They hear about fried green tomatoes and think of the hard, unripe fruit that folks pick for that dish. ‘Aunt Ruby’s German Green’ is very far from that!” The cultivar originated with Ruby Arnold of Greeneville, Tennessee, who passed away in 1997. It was introduced through the Seedsavers Exchange Yearbook in 1993 by Bill Minkey of Wisconsin, who had obtained seed from Nita Hofstrom, Ruby's niece.
The large, ribbed slicing-type fruits are green to yellow-green or amber when fully ripe, with a slight pink blush on the skin, which carries over into the buttery-textured flesh. The flavor is robust, sweet, spicy and delicious, and carries the endorsement of Slow Food's prestigious Ark of Taste. Mike agrees, “Excellent as a slicing tomato on their own, on top of a slice of artisan bread with a little olive oil, salt and pepper, or as a replacement for your typical red beefsteaks on your summer hamburgers.”
2. ‘Cherokee Purple’
Ask any group of heirloom tomato growers for their favorite heirloom cultivar, and you will definitely hear “‘Cherokee Purple!’” The slightly flattened globes of deep, dusky red, with some green on the shoulders, are smooth and usually free of blemishes and cracking. Weighing in at up to 1 pound, the gorgeous fruits are ideal for slicing onto sandwiches. The cultivar made Slow Foods’ Ark of Taste, which means it's world class. Let their description of the flavor tell the tale. “Extremely sweet with a rich smoky taste. The ‘Cherokee Purple’ has a refreshing acid, is watery, thick-skinned and earthy with a lingering flavor.”
The documented history of this cultivar begins in 1990, when well-known tomato afficionado Craig LeHoullier received seeds from John Green of Sevierville, Tennessee, with a brief note stating that the cultivar had been grown locally for at least a century, having been originally received from members of the Cherokee Nation. LeHoullier grew the seeds and recognized a good thing when he saw it. After a single season's increase, he distributed seeds via Seed Savers Exchange as well as to Dr. Jeff McCormack, founder of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. The rest is heirloom tomato history, as the iconic cultivar found the highest favor with all who grew it.
Like the rest of us, Mike loves this cultivar. “If you are like me and try many different tomato cultivars every year, ‘Cherokee Purple’ is still typically planted because it performs reliably and has a spectacular, complex flavor. It is a favorite of mine for tomato sandwiches — hold the bacon and lettuce!” Today, it may well be the most popular heirloom tomato around!
Glistening deep pink fruits with pronounced green shouldering typify this singular cultivar, which was an early heirloom superstar. Introduced by Burpee in the 1880s, allegedly of Amish origin (though the evidence is slim), the cultivar is at least of Pennsylvania or Ohio extraction. But the ultimate origin of the cultivar is unknown, owing to divergent references in early seed catalogs, as well as to the 19th century seedsmen's penchant for renaming known cultivars and “introducing” them. What is certain is that the cultivar resurfaced in 1982, when collector Ben Quisenberry listed it with Seed Savers Exchange after receiving seed from Dorris Sudduth Hill, who at the time said that the cultivar had been grown in her family for 80 years.
The large, boat-shaped fruits are renowned as the absolute best-tasting tomato known; the cultivar has been described as the standard by which tomato flavor is judged. This Slow Foods’ Ark of Taste recipient isn't the only “Brandywine” around, however — numerous cultivars exist with "Brandywine" as part of their name. But nearly all Brandywines yield large fruits on handsome potato-leaved plants.
Mike explains, “At some point over the years seed savers and merchants started referring to it as ‘Pink Brandywine’ to differentiate it from other tomato cultivars that have cropped up with the Brandywine moniker. The original ‘Brandywine’, although less productive than many other tomato cultivars, remains very popular for one main reason, its spectacular taste.”
4. ‘Black Cherry’
Here is the absolute darling cherry tomato of the heirloom world, even though it's not a true heirloom — dusky, oblate 1-inch cherries in long clusters, which are produced with abundance on sizable plants. “The difference between ‘Black Cherry’ and your average grocery store or salad bar cherry tomato becomes visually obvious as the fruits ripen. With their dusky shoulders and purplish tint, they look like miniature ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomatoes,” says Mike.
The flavor is rich, complex and smoky, not especially sweet — just what you'd expect from a purple or black type. The cultivar was developed by Vince Sapp and released in this century, which makes it technically not an heirloom, though most growers seem to think it is. It is at least an heirloom in the making — having spoken with literally thousands of gardeners over the years, I doubt that I've ever heard anything but the highest praises for ‘Black Cherry.’
5. ‘Black Krim’
Originating in Krim (Crimea), and found there in 1990 by Lars Olov Rosenström of Bromma, Sweden, here's yet another large black slicer. Possessed of substantial size (to 12 ounces and frequently larger), the cultivar has a legion of adherents, despite a tendency toward cracking.
That doesn't stop Mike from growing this one, though. “Back in the ’90s, when heirloom seeds started breaking out into the mainstream gardening marketplace, ‘Black Krim’ was one of the first,” he says. “The fruits are beautiful in both shape and color. They take on a brownish-purple to almost maroon tint, and are sweet, mild and richly flavored.” The intensely flavorful fruits are often described as salty. “Another long-time favorite in my garden,” he adds.
6. ‘Paul Robeson’
This is my personal, all-time favorite heirloom tomato. Named for the controversial American singer and actor of the mid-20th century, this tomato originated in southern Russia, like most of the first wave of black types. It made its debut in 1995, when Dr. Jeff McCormack listed it in the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook. McCormack received his seed from Marina Danilenko, a Moscow seedswoman who visited the United States in 1992.
Regarding the Paul Robeson moniker, McCormack wrote, “As to who named the tomato, I don't know, except that it already had that name when she gave me the seeds.” In any event, the story goes that the tomato was named for Robeson by the humble Black Sea farmers who first grew it, and who regarded Robeson, the man, so affectionately. (Robeson had made some pro-Soviet political remarks during the Cold War and was blacklisted in McCarthy era, and as a result was popular in the old Soviet Union.)
The fruits are moderately large slicers, ranging from smooth to deeply ribbed, somewhat flattened spheres. The flavor is sublime, sweet, earthy, complex and smoky — all the best tomato-flavor epithets richly apply. Many folks feel the taste rivals or even excels that of ‘Brandywine.’ A fairly pronounced tendency toward concentric cracking does nothing to dampen the cultivar's popularity.
7. ‘Amana Orange’
Like so many heirloom cultivars, the origin of ‘Amana Orange’ is shrouded in uncertainty. It was long held to have originated in the Amana colonies (founded in Iowa by a German religious sect). But Larry Rettig, of the Amana Heritage Society Seed Bank, disagrees. He writes, “Its origin is mistakenly attributed to the Amana Colonies, seven former communal villages in eastern Iowa. It is actually a selection made by Gary Staley that he found growing in his tomato patch in 1984 in Brandon, Florida. He named it ‘Amana Orange’ because he was once employed by an appliance manufacturer in Amana, Iowa.”
What is certain is that the cultivar yields medium-to-large, yellow-orange fruits with a hint of green shoulders, very deeply ribbed but otherwise free from blemishes. And the flavor is sweet, sweet, sweet!
8. ‘Dr. Wyche's Yellow’
Introduced by Craig LeHouillier, who received his seed from John Green (the original supplier of ‘Cherokee Purple’ as well). Green claimed that Dr. Wyche, a circus owner and entrepreneur, sent him seeds shortly before Wyche's death in 1985. Wyche was a Cherokee who supplied seed of several other heirlooms from his collection as well.
The tomato, which Wyche originally named “Hot Yellow,” is big and beautiful, reaching a pound sometimes, with very small seed cavities and occasional green shouldering. Color ranges from medium yellow to a rich deep gold. The flavor is well-balanced and hearty for an orange type. The fruits are sweet and juicy enough to make superb juice, which I was fortunate to taste once — move over, apricot nectar!
9. ‘Mortgage Lifter’
In a story that, by now, has become legend, Marshall Cletis Byles, nicknamed “Radiator Charlie” because he ran a radiator shop in West Virginia, developed this cultivar in the 1930s. Byles grew ‘German Johnson,’ several types of beefsteaks, and two other cultivars together in a small group, hand-pollinating with an eye-dropper, and saved seeds. Next year he grew some and saved seeds from the plants he liked best. After selecting for a number of generations, he had a stable variety. He reputedly sold seedlings at $1 per plant, which was, after all, pretty steep for a tomato plant during the Depression; his neighbors were so impressed they bought enough of Byles' seedlings to pay off the mortgage on his home, hence the name.
‘Mortgage Lifter’ yields huge tomatoes, reportedly up to 4 pounds! The color is a very strong, deep pink; the fruits can be a bit rough-looking, but the flavor is superlative — ‘Mortgage Lifter’ is yet another Slow Food Ark of Taste honoree.
10. ‘Amish Paste’
This cultivar was acquired by Tom Hauch of Heirloom Seeds from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Amish growers in the 1980s. Hauch was told that the cultivar had originated with Amish farmers in Medford, Wisconsin. The paste-type fruits are meaty and delicious. The flavor is well-balanced between acid and sweet, with enough complexity to earn inclusion in the Slow Food Ark of Taste. And the fruits are enormous! The plum-shaped red beauties reach 5 to 6 inches in length and can weigh up to 8 ounces. It doesn't take many to whip up a fresh-from-the-garden marinara sauce!
Mike likes this cultivar, but says, “If I had been the person who decided what to call this tomato, I would not have included “paste” in its name ... this heirloom is much juicier and seedier than what is considered typical for paste tomatoes. It is a great tomato for canning and processing into sauces, but its mild flavor also lends it to use for eating fresh.”
11. ‘San Marzano’
‘San Marzano’ is the paste-type that's widely regarded as the absolute best-tasting, hands down. Deep red in color with very few seeds and high in pectin, which makes for a thicker sauce or paste, the dense-fleshed, meaty, plum-shaped fruits have flavor of such richness and complexity that the cultivar is considered absolutely unique.
Its ultimate origin is obscured by folklore. Legend has it that it was a gift from the king, or perhaps the viceroy of Peru, to the king of Naples in the 1770s. In a treatise written about 1789, two Italian monks describe a “pear-shaped tomato, which is of a more delicate and less acid taste,” which could refer to the ‘San Marzano,’ or at least to a predecessor of it. In any event, it was well enough known to have been mentioned in the 1894 USDA Yearbook of Agriculture.
‘San Marzano’ was the focus of a commercial canning industry within the south Italian region of Campania, which surrounds the city of Naples as well as the village of San Marzano. As Mike puts it, the cultivar “is not only named after, but also is responsible for the canned tomato industry in the San Marzano region of Italy.” But in the 1970s it lost favor to modern tomato hybrids, and was rapidly displaced.
Then, in the 1990s, Dr. Patrizia Spigno led an effort to find and preserve the true ‘San Marzano’ cultivar. Twenty-seven strains were collected from local farms, studied, and ultimately two strains were identified as being most like the traditional type. Finally, in 1996, ‘San Marzano’ was recognized under European Union statutes and, when grown in its region of origin, was granted Protected Designation of Origin status. That led to a revival and today some 100,000 metric tons are grown in the region, with much more being grown beyond. (Those grown outside the region of origin can legally be called ‘San Marzano,’ but may not bear the trademark-like PDO seal.) And today, the cultivar is very much a standard both in industry and in home gardens all over the world.
There are numerous ‘San Marzano’ cultivars, both open-pollinated and hybrid types, and all are definitely ‘San Marzano,’ but the ones most like the PDO strain are labeled ‘San Marzano 2’ or just generically ‘San Marzano.’ And PDO certification notwithstanding, they don't need to be grown in Campania's volcanic soils to be the best!
12. ‘White Queen’
“White” is an elastic term when describing tomato color — most whites are really pale ivory yellow. But ‘White Queen’ has a reputation for being the whitest of the whites. Introduced originally in 1941 by the Earl May Seed Company, ‘White Queen’ was reintroduced in about 1995 by Craig Lehoullier and Dr. Carolyn Male with seed obtained from the USDA collection.
This cultivar yields large slicing-type fruits that run to 10 ounces or so, but occasionally have reached 2 pounds. The fruits are oblate, usually with heavy ribbing, and are very juicy. Like most light-colored tomatoes, ‘White Queen’ has a super-low acid content. This relative lack of tartness makes it seem very sweet, and the taste is often described as “fruity,” but make no mistake, the flavor is all tomato!
So if you're new to heirloom gardening, be sure and give some of these cultivars a try. You'll likely learn what experienced growers have long known: In a field of thousands of stars, these are a few of the divas.
Saving Seed From Your Tomatoes
Tomatoes are a great subject for beginning seed savers. The plants tend to be self-pollinating, and the seed is easy to harvest, dry and store.
Correct isolation is required to save any kind of pure seed. You want to avoid accidental crossing with other cultivars, which would give new and unexpected results. But isolation is a snap with tomatoes. Regular-leaf tomatoes can be kept true-to-type by isolating parent stock by only 25 to 50 feet from other tomato cultivars. Even at closer spacing, tomato flowers aren't well liked by bees, and so most seeds are going to be a product of self-pollination in their flower of origin. (Potato-leafed cultivars, like ‘Brandywine,’ ‘Stupice,’ ‘Japanese Black Trifele’ and a few other common cultivars, are the exception. These require 500 feet from other tomato cultivars for more-or-less guaranteed purity of the seed.)
Tomatoes are generous producers of seed, with a single fruit typically yielding 50 to several hundred seeds. That's a lot of future tomato plants! So you can build a sizable seed bank just from harvesting the seeds from an occasional fruit here and there.
Begin with a fully ripe fruit. The easy way is just to scoop the pulp and seeds out of the fruit, spread onto a paper towel, and air dry. For greater quantities, crush several fruits and ferment the pulp for a couple of days, just until white fungus forms a mat on the surface of the pulp. Then stir gently, allow the seeds to sink, and pour off the unwanted pulp and skins by rinsing in several changes of water. Nearly everything you don't want will float away if you work carefully. What's left at the bottom of the bowl or pail is mostly seed. Strain, then spread the seed on a plate or a piece of paper, allowing the remaining water to drain away, and air dry. (A gentle breeze from a fan will help.) After a few days the seed will be dry.
Store only fully dried seed, in plastic bags, jars or paper envelopes. In ordinary indoor conditions, your homegrown seed will remain viable for 5 to 7 years, and freezer storage preserves seeds' viability for decades.
How to Select the Right Heirloom
Part of the reason behind heirlooms' reputation for unreliability stems from the challenges involved in making a choice of cultivars. There's no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to choosing an heirloom cultivar for your area. Instead, several parameters should be used, and doing so will increase your odds of making a good selection.
Days to maturity — Know the frost-free dates for your garden, and choose cultivars whose stated days to maturity falls comfortably within the length of your season. Bear in mind, not all frost-free days are created equal. Early and late in the season, the average temperature will be low, even though a freeze doesn't occur. But tomatoes like warm conditions, and very little growth or ripening of fruits will occur during those cool days at either end of the frost-free season. So don't try to grow a 90-day tomato in a frost-free season of 90 days! Instead, allow at least 4-6 extra weeks beyond the stated days to maturity of a cultivar you're considering. If the numbers don't add up, don't count on that cultivar unless you plan to use row cover or other season-extension devices.
Climate of Origin — Choose cultivars that originated in a climate similar to your own. It may seem pretty involved, but knowing a little something about how your climate stacks up against others around the world can shorten a list of candidates to a likely few. For example, if you live in Wisconsin, your climate is likely a lot more like the steppes of eastern Europe than like the tropics! So in this example, cultivars from Ukraine, Germany or Poland are a better bet than cultivars from tropical Thailand or Brazil. There are plenty of exceptions, but it's a good starting point.
Experiment and keep records — Each year, grow tried-and true cultivars that have given good results in past years. But don't be afraid to try a new one or two — you may find a new favorite! And keep some sort of permanent record of what did well in your garden. That way, when the time comes to order or plant seeds, you'll be a leg up. Without information, each year will be like starting over, and tomatoes take too much work for that!
Randel A. Agrella lives, works and gardens in central Connecticut, where he also manages historic Comstock, Ferre and Co. An heirloom seed saver since 1982, he offers heirloom plants in season on his website, www.abundantacres.net. His articles have appeared in Heirloom Gardener since 2005.