If you garden like I do, you stop at one of the local home improvement stores in the spring, and pick up six or eight tomato plants. You don’t worry much about the type of tomato, as long as the stems look strong and there are a lot of healthy green leaves on the plants that you put in your basket. For those of us who don’t discriminate much when we buy, we’re convinced that any plant producing a red tomato, big enough to make slices for hamburgers, will be fine. We may take a quick look at the label, and find some information about how large the plant is going to get, how much shade it would like to have, how much water it will need, and to see if the name is familiar. And almost all of the hybrid names are followed by several letters, each letter referring to some terrible disease that this particular hybrid has been created to avoid. Therefore, for guys like me, the more letters, the better. If all of my six plants grow to maturity, and produce even half of their full capacity, I’m going to have more tomatoes than I can handle, anyway.
Despite my easy-going attitude about plant varieties, however, I was impressed with a Brandywine tomato that a co-worker brought in for me to taste last summer. The color was a deep red, and there was enough juice coming out of it to float a toy boat. This particular tomato was larger in diameter than any hamburger patty cooked on my grill, and would have probably weighed well over a pound before we sliced it. He reported to me that, while he also grows the disease-resistant varieties found at the local stores, he always orders seeds for non-hybrid heirloom varieties every winter, so that he can start his seedlings inside and have them ready to weather-harden and plant by mid-May.
Want to know how to grow your heirloom tomatoes organically? Check out this post.
Unlike their hybridized cousins, heirloom tomatoes are not genetically modified to be disease tolerant, and are created by natural open pollination. Without getting too technical in the discussion, these types (cultivars) are ones which stay the same from generation to generation. The disadvantage is, of course, that they may be more prone to some forms of blight while they are trying to grow, and it may be easier to find heirloom tomato seeds rather than seedlings. On the other hand, the taste of an heirloom tomato can be terrific, and can be a wonderful reward to the gardener that has accepted the challenge of working with a plant that is more susceptible to problems.
All of the major seed catalogs will have a section for types of heirloom tomatoes. I have listed here and described a few of the more popular varieties.
You May Be Missing Out by Not Trying Some of These Flavor-packed Heirloom Tomato Varieties
1. Brandywine. One of the better-known heirloom tomatoes, Brandywine plants typically produce large fruit, ranging in color from yellow to red to purple. They take the standard 80 to 100 days to grow mature tomatoes, and the best taste is from those that are allowed to vine-ripen. They are not heavy producers, however, so one will want to take care to protect the fruit that does appear on the plant.
2. Rainbow. The name of this heirloom tomato variety comes from the fact that its basic yellow color will be mixed with swirls of pink and red near the blossom end of the fruit. Typically large in size and sweet in flavor, this is another late-harvest variety that can certainly be worth the trouble.
3. Mortgage Lifter. According to tales, the name of this plant came from the tomato grower who developed and sold the variety in the 1930’s and then used the proceeds during the next several years to pay off his mortgage. Often pink in color, this is another sweet-tasting heirloom tomato variety that produces oversized fruit on hearty-sized vines. The Mortgage Lifter tomato usually has very few seeds.
4. Cherokee Purple. With the name of the plant suggesting a Native American origin, the Cherokee Purple is a large heirloom tomato that tastes quite similar to the Brandywine variety. The noticeable difference, however, is that it is almost always deep red to blackish-purple in color.
5. Black Krim. While this heirloom tomato is generally smaller in size than the Cherokee Purple, it has the same noticeable dark coloration and the same rich taste. Because of the smaller size at maturity, however, the fruit can be harvested about 10 days earlier on average than some of the larger beefsteak-sized varieties.
While these are just a few of the more prominent heirloom tomato types, seed catalogs can provide a full listing of available cultivars. One can find tomatoes that are light-colored, dark-colored, striped, large, small, early-producing and late-producing. Consider an heirloom tomato for your garden this year. It certainly can’t hurt to try something different once in awhile.
(Makes about 4 pints)
- 10 pounds ripe tomatoes
- 4 onions
- 2 sweet red peppers
- 1 clove garlic
- 3/4 cup brown sugar
- 2-inch stick of cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon whole cloves
- 1 teaspoon whole allspice
- 1 teaspoon celery seed
- 2 cups cider vinegar
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
- Peel and chop tomatoes, onions and peppers, and put the ingredients into a wide-mouthed 2-gallon stainless steel pot (it cooks evenly).
- Add garlic that has been pushed through a garlic press.
- Cover the mixture and bring it to a boil, remove the cover, and cook until the mixture is soft, then put it through a food mill.
- Pour the mixture back into the pot and simmer until it is reduced by half, or about 30 minutes.
- Add the whole spices tied up in cheesecloth (make a little bag) and cook the mixture slowly until very thick, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon to prevent scorching at the bottom.
Remove the spice bag and pour the hot mixture into scalded jars and seal.