Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Vegetables

Weird Tomatoes

by Jack Ruttle

There is an avalanche of tomato varieties becoming available to American gardeners. Twenty years ago our choices were much simpler. Tomatoes were basically round, red and available in three sizes -- small, medium or large. There were still a few gold and pink varieties around, but these seemed to be fading into history as the tomato-buying public voted with their wallets: "Give us round and red!"

Even the highest tides are bound to change. Inevitably, people tire of what they once craved and look for something that's new. And when they began looking for new tomatoes, they found a rich assortment of colors and shapes. Marvelously striped bicolors, purples, brick reds, creamy whites and even improbable chocolates and weird greens. There were cherry tomatoes scarcely bigger than peas and huge ribbed things shaped like pumpkins, plus pepper-shaped tomatoes, sausage-shaped tomatoes and monstrous, heart-shaped fruits.

You can find diversity like this in other vegetables: squash, corn, dry beans and peppers certainly. But none of those are so dearly loved by so many American gardeners or as simple to grow. And none are easier to save your own seed from than tomatoes, which tend to be self-pollinated and produce huge amounts of seed in a single fruit.

When the round-and-red-weary first went looking, they found the truly unusual in the backyards of other gardeners who had been saving their own seed for years, even across generations. These varieties became available by mail first through the Seed Savers Exchange and soon afterward from some small seed companies that began to specialize in heirlooms. (An heirloom vegetable is one that is open-pollinated and at least 50 years old.) More varieties appeared when travelers, plant hunters and correspondents began actively collecting varieties from all over the world, especially Europe and countries in the former Soviet bloc.

Today almost any seed catalog will have at least one or two of the best heirlooms. There is even one company -- Tomato Growers Supply -- that offers virtually nothing but tomatoes, though it recently expanded to include peppers.

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