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Most gardeners are growing tomatoes for the taste — that wonderful taste of summer that you just won’t get from a grocery-store tomato.
Mozzarella Tomato Salad
Heirloom tomato cultivars can be found in a wide variety of colors, shapes, flavors and sizes. Pictured is a marmonde tomato.
Saturday, June 1, 2013
For many gardeners, a vegetable garden is just not complete without a tomato plant or two. Based on sales at local garden centers, folks in this area love their tomatoes!
Ask long-time gardeners for their favorite varieties of tomatoes and you will nearly always hear a laundry list of heirloom varieties. Most gardeners are growing tomatoes for the taste — that wonderful taste of summer that you just won’t get from a grocery-store tomato. And, when it comes to taste, the heirloom varieties are among the best tomatoes you can grow.
You won’t see heirloom tomatoes in most grocery stores because most of them don’t ship well. To enjoy these treats, you need to visit your local farmers market or grow them yourself.
What is an heirloom tomato?
An heirloom tomato is generally thought of as a tomato variety of which seed has been passed down through several generations. Most commonly, it refers to open-pollinated tomato varieties that have been in circulation for more than 50 years.
Heirloom tomatoes are the tomatoes for backyard gardeners who like to collect seed. In an heirloom variety, both sides of the DNA come from a common stable cultivar, so second-generation plants from collected seed are like the parent. Pick the best plant in your garden for seed collecting, and you will be producing an excellent plant next year, as well.
In contrast, hybridized seeds are made by combining different cultivars, so the second generation of plants tends to exhibit undesirable excessive traits. You can collect seed from an heirloom tomato, but you shouldn’t bother collecting seed from hybrids.
Although some heirloom varieties can be prone to cracking or disease, cultivars grown over several gardening seasons will adapt to the geographic area and evolve to develop increased resistance to pests and disease. Careful selection and seed-saving produces the best plants for future generations.
Brandywine: Ranked by many experts as the best-tasting tomato around, brandywine dates to the late 1800s and features large fruits up to 2 pounds each. The tomatoes start out pink, turn slowly to red, and then become slightly purple as they ripen completely. Brandywine is largely considered to be responsible for the renewed interest in heirloom varieties.
Golden jubilee: This award-winning tomato from 1943 produces 3-inch-wide fruits with attractive, bright orange flesh. Golden jubilee tomatoes are mild in flavor and a favorite of those who can’t tolerate the high acid content of red tomatoes.
Moskvich: A Russian heirloom, moskvich is known for its tolerance to cold weather and is an early producer with a very rich flavor.
Black cherry: The color is more of a dark purple-red than black, and black cherry tomatoes have a complex flavor that’s more savory and less sweet than the average tomato.
Green zebra: Green zebra’s fruits are gold with bold green strips, and are often ranked as one of the best-tasting heirloom tomatoes. The flavor is slightly more tart than regular tomatoes.
Big rainbow: A very large, bi-color tomato in gold and red, big rainbow is often described as meaty and mild-flavored.
Black Krim: A Russian beefsteak variety, black Krim is deep maroon and has a rich flavor, described as smoky and sweet with a lingering tang and just a hint of saltiness. The color of the blackish-red meaty inside deepens in the heat.
Yellow pear: This variety produces a long supply of yellow, bite-sized fruit with a mild flavor.
Mortgage lifter: Legend has it that the variety was developed in the 1930s to pay off the grower’s mortgage. He crossed four varieties to produce this heirloom that grows huge fruits weighing up to 4 pounds each. Tomatoes have a meaty flavor with few seeds.
Mama Leone Italian: Brought to New York from Italy, this variety produces 5- to 6-ounce old-time Italian tomatoes that are wonderful in sauces or paste.
Cherokee purple: A beefsteak tomato in the “black” color group of tomatoes, Cherokee purple is more than 100 years old and was originally grown by the Cherokee Indians. An excellent, rich flavor makes Cherokee purple one of the best heirlooms for taste.
German stripe: An old German heirloom, this variety produces huge fruits that weigh as much as 2 pounds. The color is golden yellow with pink to red stripes.
Mr. Stripey: Dating to the 1800s, Mr. Stripey was first brought to the United States by Virginia Mennonites. The large 1- to 3-pound fruit has clearly defined yellow-orange streaks.
Old German: Grown since the 1800s in Virginia, old German is a medium-large tomato with yellow and red marbled flesh and a fruity flavor.
Rutgers select: This variety is considered ideal for home gardeners and produces large, rich, red fruit.
San Marzano: This Italian classic dates to the 1770s and is considered one of the best paste tomatoes. A tart flavor, firm pulp, low seed count, and easily remov able skin make it a favorite for sauces, pastes and canning.
Celebrating the tomato
Don’t miss the opportunities this summer to celebrate the tomato!
The annual EastMont Tomato Festival happens the third Saturday of August in Shawsville, and the Blacksburg Farmers Market holds an annual tomato tasting event each August, too.
Come read about upcoming tomato events and share your favorite varieties of tomatoes on my blog at blogs.roanoke.com/downtoearth.
Karen Hager’s column runs every other Saturday in Extra.
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