heirloom tomatoes

A Color-By-Color Guide To Heirloom Tomatoes

Think beyond Beefsteak and Roma when planning your garden.

September 17, 2015


The darker the tomato, the more acidic the flavor, I've found.

Cherokee Purple is winey and sweet. It's consistently the most popular tomato at my market stand. Tomato guru Craig LeHoullier, who grows 100 tomato varieties each year in Raleigh, North Carolina, calls Cherokee Purple the perfect tomato because of its lush, intense, well-balanced flavor and its natural tolerance to disease in his garden, where fusarium wilt is a perennial problem. For a big, main-season heirloom, Cherokee Purple produces early, heavy loads of fruit. I've often thought when slicing open a dead-ripe Cherokee Purple that the term beefsteak must have been coined to describe the dusky, luscious purple and green marbled flesh of this tomato.


Related: The 19 Most Delicious Heirloom Tomatoes In The World

Black Sea Man ripens earlier and tastes almost as good as Cherokee Purple.

Black From Tula + Black Prince have a place in the garden of Bill Minkey of Darien, Wisconsin, who offers about 700 varieties of tomato seed through the Seed Savers Exchange. Black Prince bears heavy clusters of greenish brown tennis ball-size fruit that is chock-full of juice. Craig recommends the taste of Black From Tula but has found it to be less tolerant of disease than Cherokee Purple. In my experience, Black Prince tastes great and produces well but its juiciness and fragility make it susceptible to cracking in rainy weather.

Ananas Noire + Sara Black are lesser-known but still noteworthy winners in Bill's Wisconsin plot for their flavor and productivity.

Related: 3 Super Simple Ways To Preserve Garden Tomatoes 


These varieties seem to be at the other end of the acidity spectrum from the dark ones. Actually, white tomatoes are not less acidic; their sweetness tends to mask the acidity.

White Wonder has a mild flavor that is an ideal counterpoint to the big tomato flavor of the darker tomatoes in a salad, though some gardeners find it too bland.

White Queen is a richer-tasting white variety, say Bill and Craig.


The best orange and yellow varieties remind me that the tomato is technically a fruit.

Hugh's makes that point deliciously. Bite into its translucent yellow flesh, and those aromatic, peachy sweet juices gush down over your chin. And boy, does Hugh's produce loads of huge, squash-size fruit.

Yellow Brandywine has nectarine-like consistency with intense sweetness. The Platfoot strain of Yellow Brandywine ("strain" refers to its seed-saving lineage) scores the highest marks for productivity and flavor in most gardens. It is late to ripen and does not set fruit well in my garden unless I wait until the weather has taken a decidedly summery turn before transplanting it into the ground.

Orange Strawberry is a rich, meaty oxheart-type that thrives in Wisconsin's moderate summer climate.

Lillian's Yellow Heirloom, a pale yellow potato-leaved variety, scores top marks for yield, flavor, and disease tolerance in Craig LeHoullier's North Carolina garden.

Taxi loads you up with small, round, yellow tomatoes, and then the vines die off as the main-season varieties start to bear fruit.

Mountain Gold is a larger and later determinate that has fewer disease problems.

Lemon Boy, a sunny yellow hybrid, is another good producer.

Azoychka, Craig says, is a yellow beefsteak-type heirloom that ripens before the nearly orange Yellow Brandywine.

Verna Orange looks like a mango and is meaty and productive in my garden.

Related: Beginner's Guide To Seed Saving


Acidic, rich, sweet, complex, awesome—words fall abysmally short when it comes to conveying the experience of sinking your teeth for the first time each summer into a sun-warmed, garden-fresh pink or red tomato at the peak of its flavor.

Brandywine tops everyone's list in the classic tomato category, its potato-leaved vines reaching 10 feet tall laden with plump, pink fruit. Bill Minkey is partial to the Glick's strain of Brandywine. For good disease tolerance in the tropical humidity of a North Carolina summer, Craig LeHoullier turns to Red Brandywine, a non-potato-leaved variety that is slightly smaller than its pink namesake.

German Johnson + Pruden's Purple ripen a week earlier, but be aware that Pruden's Purple is more susceptible to disease.

Anna Russian, a vigorous, flavorful pink oxheart type, is one of Craig's favorites.

Eva Purple Ball, a reliable producer of attractive baseball-size fruit in all kinds of weather, is a smart choice if disease tolerance is your top priority.

Crnkovic Yugoslavian, Aunt Ginny's Purple + Marianna's Peace are mainstays in Bill Minkey's encyclopedic northern garden.

Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter, Marizol Purple + German Red Strawberry, as well as Vintage Wine, an early, pink, potato-leaved variety with distinctive gold streaks, are beloved for their exceptional flavor by my farmers' market customers and me.

Rutgers always grew in the vegetable gardens of my youth, and today I have customers at my stand who ask for this smallish "Campbell's soup" variety with roots that go back further than many heirlooms.

Better Boy, Big Beef, Celebrity, Carmello + Mountain Fresh are widely available hybrids that produce loads of large, uniform, flavorful fruit. Better Boy has remarkable disease tolerance and keeps producing until the frost.

Mule Team + Great Divide are newer, open-pollinated varieties Bill plants in his Wisconsin garden each season.

Nepal, the first non-hybrid Craig ever grew, retains its place in his garden each season.

Stupice is a super-early red variety bearing ping-pong-ball-size, green-shouldered fruit. After years of testing slicing varieties that ripen along with the first cherry tomatoes, I believe its flavor is superior to all the others.


Green tomatoes make a stimulating addition to a multicolored salad, both visually and gastronomically.

Green Zebra is a favorite at my stand for its rich and sweet taste, balanced by a salty tang. I always pay special attention to its watering needs, though, as it is more susceptible than other varieties to blossom-end rot. While Green Zebra fares well in Wisconsin, the variety struggles in the heat of North Carolina.

Aunt Ruby's German Green has a classic, rich tomato flavor, although its tendency to ripen without blushing yellow or amber like the other greens has me constantly hand-checking the fruit for softness. Both Craig and Bill give high marks to Aunt Ruby's.

Green Giant is creating a lot of buzz in tomato circles these days. This little-known potato-leaved type is soon to hit the big leagues. It scored an "A" in all of Craig's categories. Prolific, vigorous, healthy, and a big winner in more than a few tomato tastings.


The bicolors, with mild and sweet yellow flesh shot through with veins of red, are a visually stunning subset of the yellow/orange category. A must-have for the tomato salad, I say.

Georgia Streak, Striped German + Pineapple always have a place in my beds.

Peppermint wins Bill Minkey's approval for flavor and productivity in his Wisconsin garden.

Lucky Cross + Little Lucky are two unique varieties that Craig LeHoullier created from an accidental cross-pollination in his garden with Brandywine. He considers the accident "lucky" because he finds the flavor of the larger bicolors to be bland.




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