PHOTOGRAPH BY LEW ROBERTSON/GETTY
When people come to my garden, they see tomato plants. I see the names and faces of the growers who sent me seeds of their cherished varieties. As the tomato advisor for Seed Savers Exchange, a group devoted to preserving edible heirloom plants, I have the good fortune to grow treasures that, for generations, have been passed from one gardener to the next. I chronicled many of them in my book, Epic Tomatoes, but these 19 really shine.
To purchase seeds for these, visit the following:
TOMATO PHOTOGRAPHS BY STEPHEN L. GARRETT OF EPIC TOMATOES
We have Cherokee Purple today because J. D. Green of Sevierville, Tennessee, shared a packet of unnamed “purple” tomatoes with me in 1990. I loved the variety’s full, rich flavor, just as wonderful all by itself as in a salad or sandwich. Now it’s everywhere. And I think that’s really cool!
Though it grows on the straggliest vine you’ve ever seen, this is a spectacular tomato, 3 inches across and heart-shaped, with a complex flavor that balances tart and sweet. As a bonus, it’s relatively early and produces generously.
Hailing from Russia, this variety dispels the myth of the “bland yellow” tomato. It attacks the taste buds with a rush of tartness. Medium sized with golden skin, it is nearly white inside. It comes on early and abundantly.
The poster child for heirloom-tomato mania, Brandywine is a fickle sort. When it is happy, there is absolutely no tomato to equal it for flavor; the large pink fruit is so rich and so sweet, it will take a hammer to your taste buds.
This is one of the so-called “black” varieties, which retain a bit of green chlorophyll after they ripen. It is known for great size, flavor, and yield.
A new favorite offspring of the Cherokee line, this superb variety boasts Cherokee Purple quality in a tomato with grass-green flesh and amber skin.
If you garden where space is limited, this tasty variety is small enough to grow in a 5-gallon pot, so it’s an ideal choice for a deck or patio.
This large, intensely sweet heirloom sat unnoticed in the USDA tomato-seed collection until I was able to identify it from a late-1890s seed catalog.
A relative of Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom, Green Giant shares its cousin’s full flavor profile, and it’s widely adapted. Ripe fruits are green with a pink blush below.
Few tomatoes start life as such weak-looking seedlings yet develop such vigor and productivity as they grow. The mature fruits are large and sweet.
The pale fruits, weighing over a pound, are so meaty, they’re nearly solid. Their flavor has it all: intensity, richness, and depth.
The result of a chance seedling that appeared in a Brandywine planting, red-and-yellow-swirled Lucky Cross is a snappy blend of acids and sugars.
These aptly named fruits are tiny in size but gargantuan in flavor, with the deep, complex taste you’d expect from a beefsteak variety.
Like most plum tomatoes, this tiger-striped gem has a long shape and produces like a machine. It is equally at home sliced and raw or cooked into a sauce.
According to legend, M. C. Byles of Logan, West Virginia, created Mortgage Lifter through an unorthodox crossing technique. Afterward, he paid off his mortgage by selling the seedlings. It is a monster, having produced the largest tomato I’ve ever grown—a little over 2 pounds. And it is sweet, meaty, and delicious.
Nearly round, medium-sized, and red, Nepal is the assertively flavored heirloom that weaned me from modern hybrids back in the early ’80s.
I don’t grow many hybrids, but little orange Sun Gold is a worthy exception. It isn’t fussy, it produces a ton, and its sweetness is unmatched.
If you shrink Cherokee Purple to 4 feet in height but leave the fruits’ color and flavor intact, you’ll have Rosella Purple. Grow it in a 5-gallon pot.
The first pale orange, heart-shaped tomato, this variety dates back to the 1920s. It’s a large, super-meaty variety with an appealingly mild flavor.