Column: There’s lots of variety to enjoy among heirloom tomatoes

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 19, 2003

For several years I’ve been contributing articles to the Ag Monthly, a special supplement issued jointly by the Tribune and Austin Herald.

Those contributions are usually published with a &uot;Between the Cornrows&uot; heading. And this month’s article, in the Sept. 15th issue, is based on the 20 varieties of heirloom tomatoes grown this year by Tom Leland and his mother, Della, northwest of Albert Lea. Also involved in this interesting gardening project is Tom’s sister, Nancy, and Two Pony Gardens of Long Lake.

After I wrote the article for the Ag Monthly, Della Leland loaned me the book, &uot;100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Gardens.&uot; This 1999 book from Workman Press of New York is by Carolyn J. Male, Ph.D.,

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professor of microbiology at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y. She’s a real expert on these unusual and often overlooked tomatoes from the past which are being preserved and grown by an increasing number of gardeners. These sometimes oddball fruity vegetables are certainly different from the hybrid and somewhat bland tomatoes being sold just about everywhere.

In the Ag Monthly article I listed the 20 different heirloom tomatoes grown by the Lelands. Now I’ll feature a few of the other rather unusual tomatoes listed in this book.

One of the first names I encountered was Box Car Willie. Now here’s a name folks might associate with one of the folks at the annual hobo event in Britt, Iowa, or a nice fellow who was a Nashville-type country music singer. In this book the name is used for a tomato which evolved in the U.S. A rather similar tomato has the countrified name of Mule Train.

Perhaps the most descriptive name for one of these heirlooms is Yellow Pear. The origins of this particular tomato is unknown. The ripe fruit, if I can use that word, is about two ounces in weight and looks like a perfectly shaped small yellow or golden pear. In fact, they’re more pear-like in appearance than the mostly green larger ones available in the stores and elsewhere.

Somehow, the name of one the tomatoes, Sophie’s Choice, sounds more like the title of a book or film, rather than a heirloom which came from Canada.

As I looked through this colorful book, I noticed that many of these heirlooms originated elsewhere in the world. These places include Russia, Germany, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, France, New Zealand, Italy, England, Moldova and either the Czech Republic or Slovakia (once known as Czechoslovakia).

Heirloom tomatoes come in sizes ranging from dinky little cherry-like ones to the Zagola from Poland (two to three pounds each) and Omar’s Lebanese from Lebanon (three to four pounds each).

Two of the heirlooms in the book originated in Africa. One is the Heidi from Cameroon; the other is the Wuhib from Ethiopia. Both are named for the people who brought the seeds to the U.S.

One of the heirloom tomatoes, mentioned but not pictured in Professor Male’s book, is the Amana Orange. Now here’s a large tomato which originated in Iowa’s famous Amana Colonies located near Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.

There are some rather unusual names for the tomatoes in this book. One candidate for this category would have to be Kellogg’s Breakfast. The information with the photo of this orange beefsteak-type tomato doesn’t explain the origins of this particular name at all. Anyway, I have a hunch that pieces of this particular tomato on corn flakes wouldn’t be too exciting a choice on the breakfast menu.

More information about heirloom tomatoes, which are becoming increasingly popular, and other heirloom vegetables and fruits can be obtained from Seed Savers Exchange, 3076 North Winn Road, Decorah, Iowa 52101, or by calling (563) 382-5990.

(Tribune feature writer Ed Shannon’s column appears Fridays in the Tribune.)