Luigi wanted to know how many of the Top Twenty Tomatoes fingered by Mother Jones I have grown. Well, scanning the list, I recognize Stupice, Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Black Krim and Green Zebra. But memory is a terrible thing, and as I was fond of telling gardeners to whom I gave seed-saving talks, “the weakest ink is better than the strongest memory”. In other words, “Labels, Ma. Labels”.1
The crucial lesson I learned in trialling tomatoes was the importance of what we boffins are wont to call G x E, the interaction between genes and environment. Variety matters, to be sure, but so do the conditions under which the variety is grown. Take Brandywine, the ne plus ultra of gushing North American tomato fanciers. Mother Jones says:
Others praise “Brandywine’s” rich balance of acidic and sweet notes, which pleases so many palates that it’s always the one to beat in taste tests. But “Brandywine” can be challenging to grow; common problems include diseases, uneven ripening, fruit cracking and aborted blossoms due to humid heat.
Note: lack of flavour is not part of what Mother Jones describes as the challenge of growing Brandywine. Let me tell you, it certainly is in Somerset, England, even in an unheated polytunnel. I grew it several years in a row, and sold out of seeds most years, despite my saying truthfully that its much-vaunted taste didn’t do anything for me. But to be fair, I’ve also eaten it in Iowa, and it was pretty good there. I don’t know why.
The real point, of course, is that you simply cannot rely on anyone else’s assessment of the flavour of a tomato, or anything else. You may get a hint of what to expect, but until you’ve tried it under your own conditions, and in more than one season, that’s all you have: a hint.
Not in the Mother Jones list are two that I really enjoyed growing and eating. Ivory Egg is egg-shaped and the colour of old ivory; you sometimes see it called Old Ivory Egg. It is very productive and very tasty, and pretty much unscathed by disease as I recall. I like it too because it let me make a joke tomato soup that had all the flavour one could wannt but in a pale cream colour. I loved how people simply could not decide what it was, although they agreed it was delicious. It would be great to try for a gazpacho.
Then there was Silvery Fir, sometime called Silvery Fir Tree. This is a glorious tomato (but remember my warning), a bush type with very finely cut foliage (the opposite of potato-leaf types) that is supposed to come originally from Siberia. It is a bush type, very early and, for me, very tasty indeed. I ought to get it again.
The tomato I remember best, though, wasn’t really a tomato at all. Solanum sisymbriifolium has been described as a “triffid” and goes by a variety of not very helpful common names. Litchi tomato and thorn tomato capture two of its qualities; a beguiling flavour and some of the most lethal defences I’ve ever seen on a Solanum. The taste is impossible to describe, fruity, but without the savoury overtones of a tomatillo. And it is finding uses as a trap crop, to protect potato fields from nematode worms. (There’s more about it here.)
As befits a wild species, when I grew it there was quite some diversity in thorniness. I had done a couple of years of selection for the least thorny individuals, always ensuring that the flavour remained, before I had to stop. The leaves look a bit infected with virus of some sort, but that never seemed to hold the plant back. That’s one I really would like to get back to work on, if only I could think of a decent marketing name and had the space and facilities.
While we’re on the subject, let me note that Green Zebra is not an heirloom, no matter what you may read elsewhere, not in the conventional sense. Or rather, it isn’t yet. Not that I want to get into definitional fights, but it is just one of the great varieties bred by Tom Wagner and he really should get the credit wherever possible.
I’m rambling now, like an unsupported tomato vine, but this, also from Mother Jones, is a really clever idea, one I wish I had thought of, and one that I would undoubtedly steal given half a chance.
Your best buy is probably the “Rainbow’s End Heirloom Mix” from Renee’s Garden, which includes 20 seeds each of “Brandywine,” “Green Zebra” and “Marvel Stripe” that have been dyed with food coloring so you can tell which is which.
And if I were in Europe and looking for a good selection of tomato seeds, I’d probably go here first.