Brandywine. Cherokee Purple. Arkansas Traveler. Anna Russian. Mortgage Lifter.
Those are the five heirlooms I will delve into here. If you have a favorite that isn't among them, take heart, my sauce stained friend...You can vote below for your favorite heirloom, and we will continue the stories.
Heirloom tomatoes are all the rage...and for good reason. They taste so much better than the hybrids you get at the supers. At the Farmers' Markets, they command quite a price, but gardeners who have the space and the desire have been growing them for decades.
What exactly is an heirloom tomato, you might ask. That's a good starting point before jumping into the stories behind some specific varieties. An heirloom tomato, basically, has to meet two criteria before it can be referred to as such. It must be open pollinated, and not a hybrid. That is to say, if you save the seeds from the tomatoes which the plant bears, and plant them, they will grow into identical plants. Hybrid tomatoes, like Better Boy, Early Girl, Celebrity, Big Beef and others you'll find in the Burpee or Parks Seed catalogs won't do that.
Secondly, they must be at least 40 years old. Some...many, in fact, are much older than that. Others, like Arkansas Traveler, just make the cut.
I've been growing heirlooms for a number of years now. But I also grow a few hybrids. There's nothing wrong with a Celebrity tomato, and some hybrids that mature much earlier than the traditional heirlooms are a welcome first taste of tomato. If yoy live in northern climes where the growing season is short and unpredictable, some locally bred hybrids are almost must have insurance for the tomato lover...just to make sure you get something to put in between that toasted bread with mayo, crispy bacon and fresh lettuce.
I have a Willamette tomato in my garden...a hybrid developed by Oregon State University, it is a dependable tomato here in what is often a tricky place to grow tomatoes.
It's not my favorite though. That would be the Cherokee Purple.
Craig LeHoullier was a PHD chemist living in Westchester, PA. Chemistry was his profession, but gardening was his passion. In the mid 80's he had devoted much of his gardening to growing hard to find "heirloom" tomatoes, and had joined the Seed Savers Exchange as a listed member and active contributor. In gardening circles, he had established a reputation as a serious collector and grower of these old, open pollinated varieties, contributing articles to magazines such as Rodale Press' "Organic Gardening & Farming."
One day in 1990 he went out to his mailbox and found a letter posted by a stranger by the name of John Green, of Sevierville, TN. Inside was a short note and a small packet of tomato seeds. Mr Green explained that he obtained the seeds from a neighbor, who had told him that their family had been growing these tomatoes going back over 100 years. The family lore was that the seeds had been given to the family by Cherokee Indians in the area, who had developed the strain over the preceding decades. Mr Green didn't indicate in his note whether the tomato variety had a name...only that the fruit was purple, and that he wanted to share the seeds with someone who knew what to do with them.
Craig planted the seeds in his garden, and was impressed by the tomatoes the plants bore. Sure enough, they were purplish pink, though the purple hue was marked...and the flavor was superb. He collected and dried several of the seeds, and forwarded some to Jeff McCormack, founder of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. A few years later he also sent samples to the founder of Johnny's Seeds of Maine. Both entities began growing the plant and building up enough seed stock to offer them for sale commercially.
Next to Brandywine, Cherokee Purples are what put heirloom tomatoes on the map for many home gardeners who wanted to grow tomatoes that really tasted like the tomatoes of bygone days. There was a growing demand among home gardeners for old fashioned tomatoes in the 80's, which took off in the 90's, and now you can find delicious heirloom tomatoes in virtually every farmer's market in the country.
Cherokee Purples are prolific producers, bearing large, purplish fruit in the 16 oz range with greenish shoulders when ripe. They are sweet, a bit on the watery side, and the seed/gel pockets inside contribute as much, if not more, to their flavor than the flesh of the fruit. At 80 days to maturity, these are late season tomatoes, but I've had success with them in the PNW, where summer gets off to a late start. The vines are vigorous, and with tall cages can reach up to 9 ft under good growing conditions. Not suitable, really, for making sauce or canning...but as a slicing tomato eaten fresh they are unsurpassed IMHO. The perfect tomato for a good BLT or simple tomato sandwich.
Brandywine tomatoes were one of the first heirlooms to make a big splash with home gardeners. When I was living in Ohio, virtually everyone who had a garden worthy of being called such grew at least one, if not more, Brandywines. That makes sense, in a way, because this variety was first "discovered" in the Buckeye State. (It likely comes from Pennsylvania, but the provenance is hard to establish)
From an article on Victory Seeds, written by Craig LeHuillier:
This (regarding its history) is fairly certain, Brandywine is a tomato that found its way into the Seed Savers Exchange collection in 1982. It got there via an elderly (now deceased) Ohio gardener named Ben Quisenberry, who received the variety from a woman named Doris Sudduth Hill. She stated that they had been in her family for over 80 years. I do not know where the Doris came from – hence, where the tomato originated. [This tomato is differentiated in the trade as Brandywine, Sudduth Strain.]
Mr Quisenberry was more than just a gardener from Syracuse (southeastern), Ohio. He, too, devoted his life to preserving heirloom tomatoes, and operated his own, small mail order seed company from his home. He printed his own labels on an old printing press. Born in 1887, he passed away in 1986. Fortunately for tomato lovers, he helped rescue and introduce a number of great heirlooms over the course of his 99 years (Mortgage Lifter was another Quisenberry contribution). He was already 95 years old when he introduced Brandywine to Seed Savers Exchange. Like the Mr Green who sent Cherokee Purple seeds to Mr LeHuillier, Doris was from Tennessee. Gardeners from the Volunteer State obviously take their tomatoes seriously.
I've had mixed results, myself, with Brandywines. Perhaps you have, too. Part of the problem was the variety's initial success. It has been tampered with over the years since its initial commercial introduction. The old adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is oft repeated, but seldom followed. There are now Yellow Brandywines, Red Brandywines...even "Chocolate Brandywines." If you but your starts at a big box store nursery, there's no guarantee what you are actually getting these days.
If you've tried this heirloom in the past and found your reaction to be "meh", I suggest you go to the effort of obtaining seed from a reputable source such as Johnny's, Victory, or Seed Savers Exchange. Make sure it is labelled "Sudduth Strain", and give it another try. The vines have distinctive "potato leafs", and the fruits are large (up to 1 1/2 lbs), maturing at about 80 days. Great for slicing and eating fresh, you can also can them.
Arkansas Traveler takes its name from from an old heirloom that went extinct sometime in the early 1900's. In the early 70's the Univ. of Arkansas developed two open pollinated strains which they named "Traveler" and "Traveler 76". They are widely marketed as "Arkansas Traveler" because that name sounds older, more quaint and colorful. Yes...seed companies like to sell seeds, and nurseries like to sell plants.
Their is a back story to the name, however. The term "Arkansas Traveler" comes from a story written the the 1850's, and a subsequent painting depicting the tale:
A wealthy traveler is lost and comes across the cabin of the squatter. The traveler requests directions and also food and shelter from the squatter. A witty exchange follows in which the squatter is reluctant to offer help. Despite his humble circumstances, it is the squatter who holds the power in this exchange. The traveler is dependent upon him for assistance. The squatter is playing the same tune over and over on his fiddle. When it is revealed that he does not know the end of the tune, the traveler takes the fiddle and completes the tune. The fiddler is so happy to hear the rest of the tune that he extends his hospitality to the traveler, inviting him to stay and
to enjoy food and drink.
The painting, http://www.rrmerritt.com/...
, came to encapsulate the worst stereotypes of the early inhabitants of the state. The caricature of Arkansas by the late 1880's was that it was a state populated by "shiftless squatters, robbers, and cutthroats, who make the bowie-knife and the pistol the law of the land." (This is from a website hosted by the Univ. of Arkansas' History Department)
As for the tomato...I've had great luck with this variety. It has pink, 6-8 oz, perfectly round dark pink fruit, which are resistant to cracking. It matures in 75 days, making it more dependable here in the PNW, but it also thrives in hotter climates. Not as delicious as some others, but still a fine tasting tomato. It also has a bit more disease resistance than many other heirlooms whose origins go back further in time. If you garden in the South, give this one a try next Spring.
Mortgage Lifter has one of the most widely told stories behind it. I have one in my garden this year, but I've grown them many times over the past 2 decades. Also known as Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifters", these tomatoes were developed by MC Byles, an auto mechanic from Logan County, West Virginia, back in the 30's. He bred the tomato by crossing 4 different varieties that each bore extremely large fruit. The strain he ended up with easily grows fruit that can weigh from 2 to even 4 lbs each, with great taste to boot. He bagan selling his tomato starts to gardeners in the area for $1 apiece (not cheap in the early 40's, and in rural WV), and as the story goes he was able to pay off the mortgage on his house within just a few years. Said Charlie, in a taped interview:
I didn’t pay but six thousand dollars for my home, and paid most of it off with tomato plants.
Ben Quisenberry got his hands on some of the seed, and forwarded them on to Jeff McCormack of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, who further planted the variety and increased the seed stock. Notice what a small community the heirloom seed collectors are, or at least were back in the 80's? "Radiator Charley" died at the ripe age of 97. Mr Quisenberry was 99, and Doris Suddith Hill was 93 when they passed. Is it the gardening that blessed them which such long lives, or the tomatoes?
Mortgage Lifter is another tomato that takes a good 80 days to mature, but the fruits, as I said, are huge and meaty, with few seeds. They are heavy producers, on vigorous vines that will continue to bear fruit until the first frost. They are fairly disease resistant, as well. You have to grow these, if for no other reason than to see if you can coax a 4 lb tomato from your plant. It's not a snack...it's a meal.
Switching to the West Coast, we finally come to Anna Russian. One Brenda Hellenius of Corvalis, OR. She sent a packet of seeds to, who else?, Craig LeHuillier, along with a note explaining that her grandfather had obtained them several years earlier from a Russian immigrant in the area who family back home sent them to him in the mail. Craig listed the variety to SSE in 1989.
Anna Russian is a mid-season tomato that can mature in as little as 65 days under ideal conditions, or take as long as 80. It bears heart shaped, dark pink fruit that are resistant to cracking. (Tomatoes of this shape are also called "oxheart" tomatoes) These heirlooms are heavy producers of extremely tasty tomatoes that are beautiful as well. The fruit are about 14 oz. The foliage is very distinctive, and can throw some people off, however. Some describe it as wispy, others as delicate, but due to a wilt gene that the tomato carries the leaves will often look droopy and can be mistaken as being diseased. They are not...that's just the way they grow. There have been more than one first time Anna Russian Russian gardener who has pulled up their vines for fear that they were diseased and might infect the other tomatoes. Don't make that mistake.
I love to grow heirloom tomatoes. But I love to eat them even more. These are just a few I picked out to highlight. I'll do another diary on heirlooms soon, so if there's one whose praise you wish to sing, or whose background you are curious about...mention it in the comments below. I'll get to it in the next Tomato Diaries, Part II...
7:25 PM PT: By the way, folks...Seed Savers Exchange operates a 690 acre farm about 6 miles out of Decorah, Iowa, called Heritage Farm. It is open to the public for much of the year, and they grow thousands of heirloom plants there. If you are a gardening geek like me, and happen to be driving through the state, it would be worth a visit. Here's a link to SSE's website: