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.
Paragon was also introduced in 1870 by Alexander Livingston of Reynoldsburg, Ohio, who selected one distinctive plant in a field as his subject from which to develop his tomato through selective breeding. Livingston was a seedsman and entrepreneur who started the Buckeye Garden Seed Co., which later went bankrupt, but he also founded the Livingston Seed Co. that still operates today. Livingston considered Paragon to be the first perfectly round and smooth tomato. The fruits are classic red and about 8 to 10 ounces, with very good flavor. Livingston and his sons developed more than a dozen varieties into the early 20th century, some of which are parents of many important varieties.
Notable Livingston tomatoes include the pink Livingston’s Beauty, which was so popular that trainloads of them were grown in the South and shipped north. Livingston’s Favorite was released in 1883, selected from a field of Paragon explicitly for canning. Favorite is red, ranging from rounded to oblate, with very good taste perfectly suitable for fresh eating. One of my favorites is Livingston’s Golden Queen. While released by Livingston in 1882, it was by his own admission “discovered” at a county fair at a farmer’s stand. It is medium yellow with a red blush at the base, and is of very good eating quality, with a distinct balance of acidity and sweetness not often found in yellow tomatoes.
Earliana, or Spark’s Earliana, was introduced by Johnson & Stokes seed company of Philadelphia in 1910 and selected from a unique tomato plant growing in a field of tomatoes by George Spark from Salem, New Jersey. This plant has particularly early yields, with red oblate fruit between 4 and 5 ounces, and of good eating quality. Earliana was widely grown commercially in the first half of the 20th century and formed the breeding stock for many subsequent early bearing varieties.
Lambert’s General Grant is an excellent tomato. It is large, a meaty 12 ounces or greater, crimson-pink, and oblate. It is ribbed around the shoulders, with consistently excellent flavor. Not much is known about its precise origin. The variety was developed by a gardener in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, who had been working with the plants for about five years and had begun circulating the seeds in 1867. It was released in 1869, and can be considered one of the first beefsteak tomatoes.
Chalk’s Early Jewel originated in Norristown, Pennsylvania, in 1889 by James Chalk and formally released in 1899. Plants are relatively small with red fruits borne in clusters and fairly early. Bonny Best is an improvement upon Chalk’s, introduced in 1908 by Walter P. Stokes Seed company of Philadelphia. Both varieties are relatively round, red, productive, and make a good fresh-eating and processing fruit, 6 to 8 ounces, with good acidity. While not as early as Chalk’s, they are more vigorous and productive.
The Ponderosa tomatoes are another group of wonderful beefsteak tomatoes. Pink Ponderosa, or Henderson’s Ponderosa, was introduced in 1891 by the Peter Henderson & Company in New York City as “Tomato Number 400.” Customers were offered $250 to come up with the best name, and in 1892 it became known as Ponderosa. These tomatoes are large, pink, and oblate, about 12 ounces to a pound or more. They are meaty, borne in clusters, and fairly good yielding. Their taste is excellent.
No inventory of historical tomatoes would be complete without mentioning Brandywine, probably the most famous American historical tomato. Sometime before 1886 in Ohio, a customer of Johnson & Stokes in Philadelphia sent them seeds, which became Number 45 in their trial garden and the last in the row. The tomato was released as Brandywine and only had a small nonillustrated mention in the 1889 catalog out of concern that there would be insufficient seed because of the perceived demand. The following year, it got an interior illustration of a 3-pound-plus fruit and color version on the back cover. Brandywine is deep pink, with great rich favor, meaty, relatively few seeds, and large oblate fruit often weighing more than a pound. The plants are large, with distinct “potato” leaves. It is one of the best.
There are many more historic varieties worthy of any garden, including Cardinal, Mikado, Abraham Lincoln, and the recently recovered Atlantic Prize, to name a few. When you are growing tomatoes, be sure to add a couple of these classic historic varieties to your garden plans, and impress your neighbors with a taste of history and a lesson from the past.
Find seeds for your favorite heirloom varieties with these tips.
Ethnobotanist and former director of the Eastern Native Seed Conservancy, Lawrence Davis-Hollander enjoys gardening and cooking, as well as admiring bald eagles and seasonal wildflowers at a nearby preserve.