Historical Heirloom Tomatoes

Grow a piece of history in your garden with a few historical heirloom tomato varieties.

  • Livingston’s Golden Queen is a uniquely sweet yellow tomato.
    Photo courtesy RareSeeds.com
  • Atlantic Prize is great for stewing and canning.
    Photo courtesy RareSeeds.com
  • True Black Brandywine makes great salsas.
    Photo courtesy RareSeeds.com
  • Bonny Best are top-notch canning tomatoes.
    Photo courtesy RareSeeds.com
  • Abe Lincoln has thick, delicious flesh.
    Photo courtesy RareSeeds.com
  • Brandywine is a favorite heirloom tomato.
    Photo courtesy RareSeeds.com
  • Yellow Brandywines produce large, rich-flavored fruit.
    Photo courtesy RareSeeds.com
  • Livingston’s Favorite is a favorite among chefs.
    Photo courtesy RareSeeds.com

Heirloom tomatoes come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors. Some are mysteries, with little known about their origin, while others are distinctly heirloom, handed down within a family over a couple or more generations with a story attached. We tend to know the most about those historical varieties. What sets historical varieties apart is that they can be placed in a fairly specific point in time. We find them mentioned in an old seed catalog, a state agricultural report, gardening book, journal, cookbook, or other source, and discover their release date, parentage, an old photo, and learn how they fared when compared to other varieties.

While taste is important, it is thrilling and interesting to know the entire story behind a plant. This past year, I grew President Garfield, a fairly rare ruffled tomato that originated in Denmark in 1884, three years after the assassination of the respective President of the United States. This ruffled tomato was already a “throwback” in the world of tomatoes when rounder, more consistent American varieties had been produced for more than a decade, yet nevertheless it is a great conversation piece.

These varieties are living history. The hand that created a variety stretches right through the centuries to deliver that tomato to our own gardens today. Knowing what company or individual developed it, how old it is, what part of the country it came from, what it looked like, and how it was used are clues that tell us about our farm, garden, and culinary history, and allow us to get an accurate comparison between the original variety and the modern.

Fortunately, there are numerous historical tomato varieties that still exist and remain relatively true to their original form. Many taste wonderful, while some perform better in “ideal” years and soil types.

Give ’em a whirl

One of the first named varieties still available today is Early Large Red, which was popularized in the United States in the early 19th century. It was one of the most widely grown varieties in its heyday. This tomato is “ruffled” like most other larger tomatoes from this time period. The more round and oblate “modern” tomatoes were not available until after the Civil War. Fruits are 3 inches across on small vines and relatively early. Flavor is good, and it is best suited for cooking. Tomatoes did not typically make their way into salads at this time.

Trophy is one of the first round tomato varieties. It was developed by Dr. T.J. Hand of Baltimore starting around 1850 by crossing round cherry tomatoes with the ruffled types. This was a breeding breakthrough and produced a tomato of fresh eating quality. This tomato was superior to any previous variety. It was not widely circulated until it was introduced and promoted by Colonel Waring of Ogden Farm near Newport, Rhode Island, in 1870. Seeds were pricey, at 25 cents apiece or 5 dollars for a packet of 20 seeds. The fruits are red, relatively round, with good mild taste.

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