Heirloom Tomato Varieties for Your Garden

Add heirloom tomato varieties such as Brandywine, Livingston’s Beauty, Pruden’s Purple or Eva Purple Ball.

| March/April 2013

In one brief foray, it is impossible to completely capture the variety of beautiful forms and flavors that the heirloom tomato has to offer. Many of us dream about tomato season all year round, and, if we’re lucky, we indulge in its splendor for a couple of summer months, then pack our taste buds away in hibernation until the next season.

The tomato is a member of the Solanaceae, the ubiquitous plant family that yields a number of ornamental flowers; edible fruits as in eggplants, peppers, tomatoes and tomatillos; on occasion, edible roots — tubers, actually, in the case of potatoes or the wild American potato, Solanum jamesii; and poisonous shoots, such as nightshade or belladonna and jimsonweed. Even some South American-cultivated and wild potato varieties are poisonous. About 1,700 species in this plant family are native to widely scattered regions of both the Old and New Worlds.

Tomato through time

The tomato belongs to a genus consisting of nine species, two of which are edible and cultivated. Lycopersicon esculentum is the common tomato of all sizes and shapes, and it is joined by its diminutive fruited cousin, the currant tomato, L. pimpinellifolium. Don’t be fooled by fruit size, currant tomato plants can become quite large, rangy and dense, yielding thousands of sweet fruits with a distinctive flavor.

The wild Lycopersicon species are native to a 100-mile-wide band found along the coastal regions of Chile, Ecuador and Peru, occupying a wide range of ecological zones from moist river valleys, high mountains to 10,000 feet, dry sites, desert, and salty locations on the coast.

The parent of the tomato was L. esculentum variation cerasiforme, a small wild cherry tomato. There is no direct evidence of this plant being cultivated in its native habitat, although its fruits must have been foraged. It is believed that this wild ancestor slowly migrated northward, perhaps spread by animals or humans eating it as a trail snack, eventually reaching present-day Mexico where cultivation began, perhaps around 500 B.C.

The tomato is, of course, a fruit, called a berry by botanists. In 1883, the tomato may have been the only fruit ever defined as a vegetable by the Supreme Court.

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