Heirloom Tomatoes Celebrated at Chicago Festival

Chicago Botanic Garden devotes one summer weekend each year to celebrate incredible heirloom tomatoes.

| November/December 2013

  • Marigolds at the base of tomato trellises act as both insect deterrents and living mulch.
    Photo By Natalie K. Gould
  • Heirloom tomatoes come in all shapes, sizes, colors and flavors.
    Photo Courtesy Chicago Botanic Garden
  • Speckled Roman Tomatoes
    Photo By Natalie K. Gould

When John Swenson planted Antique Roman and Banana Legs tomato varieties in his garden in the 1990s, in no way could he have predicted they would cross pollinate. Up until this point, Swenson enjoyed Antique Roman but said it was polymorphic — irregular shapes and sizes — and had a thin skin, therefore transported poorly. Nonetheless, he was intrigued by the variety’s history, so he kept it in his garden and introduced it in the 1991 Seed Savers Exchange yearbook. Then one summer day in 1995, he stepped out into his garden, and to his surprise he found a tomato he had never seen before. Swenson had planted what he thought were Antique Roman seeds, but the red fruit with golden stripes and spots was no Antique Roman tomato. He examined it, pronounced it a Roma, and set to work investigating where exactly it came from. What he eventually discovered was that his Banana Legs had formed a stable cross with the unpredictable Antique Roman, creating what is now known as the Speckled Roman. This heirloom was just one of many celebrated varieties at the fourth annual Heirloom Tomato Weekend at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Illinois.

The festival brings together gardeners and non-gardeners alike for a weekend spent celebrating tomatoes on a 3.8-acre island filled with more than 700 edible plants.

For many folks, tomatoes are identical red, waxy spheres found in the grocery store’s produce section. Their flavor is bland, and children turn up their noses at the sight of the offending fruit. Heirloom Tomato Weekend aims to “inspire people to grow and celebrate heirloom tomatoes,” Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden horticulturist Lisa Hilgenberg says. A portion of the visitors aren’t even aware that varying types of tomatoes exist, not to mention varieties with a scale of flavors ranging from sugary sweet to peppery.

“What makes a tomato an heirloom?” one visitor asks on a walking tour of the garden. Hilgenberg replies that an heirloom is simply any plant variety with a history of being passed down within a family or community, and because all heirlooms are open-pollinating, they produce the same fruit year after year. Unlike hybrids, seeds saved from heirloom varieties breed true. This information provides a perfect segue for Hilgenberg to lead the group to her seed-saving demonstration.

What looks like a 10th-grade science experiment with shallow bowls and glass measuring cups is actually a simple setup to show folks two easy methods to save their heirloom tomato seeds. There is no need to buy heirloom seeds year after year so long as the existing seeds are saved properly — and the process couldn’t be easier.

Method 1: Slice the best heirloom tomatoes at their “equator,” or where most of the seeds are located. Squeeze the pulp into jars, and let it sit out uncovered for a few days to ferment. This process helps remove the slippery membrane surrounding the seeds. When a thin layer of mold covers the pulp, usually within two to three days, pour the contents into a strainer over the sink and rinse. With a table knife, spread the seeds on a plate covered with a coffee filter or paper towels to dry completely. Don’t forget to label the towel or filter with the tomato variety. Fold up the paper towel or coffee filter and place it in an envelope, or flick the seeds off and store in small envelopes. Store in a cool, dry place indoors. Seeds are viable for four to five years.

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