The Epic Stories Behind 5 Heirloom Tomatoes

Each of these heirloom tomatoes has a history as rich as its flavor.

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heirloom tomato

Kip Dawkins Photography, from 'Epic Tomatoes' by Craig LeHoullier (Storey Publishing)

If Shakespeare's Juliet had asked Craig LeHoullier "What's in a name?," LeHoullier would have pushed back on her contention that names are meaningless conventions. That's because LeHoullier knows the importance of genealogy in regards to heirloom tomatoes.

To LeHoullier, what's in the name of an heirloom tomato is a fascinating history of the conscientious gardeners who passed seeds through succeeding generations. He compares this to six degrees of separation: If any link in the chain had been broken, these tomatoes, cherished relics of the gardening world, would have been lost for all time.

Cover of Epic Tomatoes book
 Storey Publishing

"Heirlooms are living things, and unless they are grown and saved and shared and relished, they'll go extinct," he said. This is a central message in his book, "Epic Tomatoes: How to Select & Grow the Best Varieties of All Time," which won the Garden Writers Association Gold Award in 2016. It includes information about selecting and growing heirloom tomatoes as well as some of his favorite heirloom tomato stories.

These are topics LeHoullier knows well. A lifelong gardener, LeHoullier has specialized in heirloom tomatoes for 30-plus years and annually grows an average of 150 varieties in pots and bags on the driveway of his home in Raleigh, North Carolina. He calculates that he has grown or tasted more than 3,000 tomatoes and played a role in introducing more than 200 types. A retired chemist in the pharmaceutical industry, he has been an ambassador for heirloom tomatoes since an "aha!" moment in 1986 when he discovered Seed Savers Exchange, an Iowa nonprofit that preserves heirloom plants.

"That started me down the path of yellow and purple and green and white and heart-shaped and all these other tomatoes," he said. "It also kind of captured the fact that I love history and genealogy and that I love to share information. The thought of growing 50 different tomatoes that look and taste different and most of them have interesting stories ... it was almost like a perfect intersection of many aspects of life that I enjoy."

Here are his six favorite stories about the names behind heirloom tomatoes, old varieties that are open pollinated by wind or insects. Only one story is about a red tomato; the others are about a purple, a pink, a yellow and two whites. And if by the end of this story, you find yourself wanting to grow one of these but can't find seedlings, we've included a list of companies that carry seeds of one or more of these varieties as well as seeds of other heirloom tomatoes at the end.

1. Cherokee Purple

A Cherokee purple tomato
Kip Dawkins Photography, from 'Epic Tomatoes' by Craig LeHoullier (Storey Publishing)

This is one of the most popular heirloom tomatoes and one that LeHoullier named.

After LeHoullier joined the Seed Savers Exchange, he started building his heirloom seed collection through magazine seed swaps. This was about 1998-1990, and word got out that he was collecting seeds, growing tomatoes from the seeds, and then disseminating seeds through the Seed Savers Exchange. As a result, each spring people started mailing him heirloom tomato seeds. One such envelope arrived in 1990 from John D. Green in Sevierville, Tennessee. Green included seeds and a letter that said the seeds were from a purple tomato passed down from the Cherokees and grown more than 100 years ago.

LeHoullier suspected it was really a pink tomato because, he said, old seed catalogs often described pink tomatoes as purple. Still, he decided to plant the seeds and see what happened. To his amazement, as the fruit ripened he and his wife, Susan, saw a color they'd never seen before. And they knew they were the recipients of something truly special when they tasted the tomatoes. "They were absolutely delicious," LeHoullier said.

He wanted to share seeds from his discovery with other heirloom tomato growers, but he needed to name the tomato first. "Based on information Mr. Green shared with me, I thought Cherokee Purple was as good a name as any," LeHoullier recalled. Next, he called his friend Jeff McCormick, who ran Southern Exposure Seed Exchange at the time, to tell him about a tomato with an unusual color, interesting history and great flavor.

The next spring, McCormick grew plants with LeHoullier's seeds. He loved the taste but worried about the color, so he called LeHoullier and said, "Well that’s a fine tasting tomato, but it's funny looking. It looks like a leg bruise, and I'm not sure the public will accept it. I'll tell you what. I'll carry the seed in my catalog, and we'll see what happens." Parallel to sharing the seed with McCormick, LeHoullier also shared the seed through the Seed Savers Exchange. To say the tomato has been popular since is an understatement; it's been a runaway hit.

Growing tips: The first rule in buying Cherokee Purple seed is to be confident of your seed source, advised LeHoullier. So many people and companies are involved in seed saving now that mistakes can happen with an open-pollinated crop like a tomato because bees can get in and provide crosses that people don't detect, LeHoullier said. "I've been to enough markets and enough tastings to know that many heirlooms aren't what they are supposed to be. I've seen Cherokee Purples that have the wrong size, the wrong color, the wrong flavor and the wrong internal structure."

If you're working with seedlings you've grown or purchased, plant them deep when putting them in pots or in the garden. (When planted deep, tomatoes will sprout roots along the stem.) Then get ready for a rambunctious plant. It's not the tallest of the indeterminate, meaning infinitely growing, heirlooms, but it needs a strong stake or cage to keep it under control. It also produces a very good fruit set. It will grow well in the Northeast, but it excels in the South and Southeast. It seems to have developed some naturally inbred disease tolerance and resistance, perhaps due to is supposed Tennessee origins. LeHoullier said it's one of the last tomatoes to go down to disease for him year after year, no matter the weather.

Flavor: "I love a tomato that attacks my taste buds and Cherokee Purple does that," LeHoullier explains. "It soothes the senses. It's intense. It's got some elements of acidity, some elements of sweetness and it's also got a nice texture that's very juicy and very smooth. So, I would describe Cherokee Purple as being one of those tomatoes that kind of has it all in terms of the intensity, the complexity the fullness and the balance. To my taste buds, there are not a ton of tomatoes with that level of uniform excellence. Having grown 3,000 tomatoes and counting in my career, Cherokee Purple always rises into the top 10 of my tasting experience."

2. Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter (aka Mortgage Lifter)

Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter tomato
Kip Dawkins Photography, from 'Epic Tomatoes' by Craig LeHoullier (Storey Publishing)

The story of this tomato originates in the late 1920s in Logan, West Virginia, with a man named M.C. Byles. As the story goes, Byles lived at the bottom of a hill in the mountains, LeHoullier said. Byles' job was to repair truck radiators. The trucks would overheat going uphill, and when they came back down, the drivers would have to get the radiators repaired, which Byles would do. Byles was also an avid gardener and had a goal of creating the biggest tomato possible.

In trying to achieve this goal, he used a unique method of putting a plant that produced large tomatoes in the middle of a circle of three other tomato varieties. The central tomato was German Johnson, a large and pretty-well known North Carolina heirloom, although no one knows the exact history behind it, LeHoullier said. When the plants produced flowers, Byles would take a baby ear syringe and pull pollen from the flowers on the periphery and put them on the German Johnson's flowers. Byles would take seeds from the pollinated German Johnson tomatoes and save them to plant the next year. After some years of repeating this process, Byles claimed he had produced a plant that would produce enormously large tomatoes weighing two-to-three pounds.

Byles decided to publicize his tomatoes and let people know he would have seedlings of a tomato variety that would produce enormous fruit. He would sell them for either $2 or $2.50 each. Word got out and people would come from miles around to buy Radiator Charlie's seedlings. "This is the late 1920s early '30s, the economy wasn't great and people are paying $2.50 for a tomato plant!" LeHoullier marveled. "He sold so many of these tomatoes that he paid off a $5,000 or $6,000 house mortgage within a few years. And so, the tomato became known as Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter. Talk about a combination of cleverness and savviness! I think this is just a great homey story."

"Those of us who grow Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter to this day will often find that it is indeed the largest tomato that we grow," LeHoullier said. "I have grown them to two-three pounds."

Growing tips: "Mortgage Lifter is a huge tomato that grows on huge vines," said LeHoullier. "The best way to succeed with Mortgage Lifter is to provide a tall stake or grow it in a cage. It needs full sun — like most very large-fruited heirlooms, more sun means a better chance at a good yield. Summers that are very hot (above 90 degrees for extended stretches) and humid will be tough on Mortgage Lifter, which will suffer quite a lot of blossom drop, reducing yield."

Flavor: "This is not a top 10 tomato for me in flavor," said LeHoullier. "It's probably a top 50. The reason for that is because it tastes a lot like many of the other large, pink beefsteak type tomatoes." To LeHoullier, that means it tends to be a little more on the sweet side and lacks the complexity of Cherokee Purple. Still, he calls it a superb tomato.

3. Lillian's Yellow Heirloom

Lillian's Yellow Heirloom tomato
Kip Dawkins Photography, from 'Epic Tomatoes' by Craig LeHoullier (Storey Publishing)

After Epic Tomatoes came out, LeHoullier was invited to appear on "The Splendid Table" in 2015. During the show, he was asked to name three tomato varieties he would want if he was stranded on a deserted island. Number one, he said, was the orange cherry tomato Sun Gold for its unique flavor and incredible productivity (which, LeHoullier points out, is not an heirloom). Number two was Cherokee Purple. Number three was Lillian's Yellow Heirloom.

This is an obscure tomato but one that deserves wider recognition, LeHoullier said. He describes it as a large bright yellow tomato, almost white canary yellow, with flesh that is an ivory-tinged yellow. The fruit grows to one and a half pounds on vigorous plants with dark green potato-leafed foliage.

The tomato is named for Lillian Bruce. She lived in Tennessee and liked to save seeds. Her sons helped her do this by scanning flea markets and farmers markets for interesting produce. One day — no one knows exactly when — they brought her a yellow tomato. She loved it, saved seeds from it and grew it in succeeding years.

The seeds made their way to a seed saver named Robert Richardson, a Seed Savers Exchange member in New York. He knew how much LeHoullier loved tomatoes and sent him seeds from Lillian Bruce's yellow tomato. They arrived in a packet simply labeled Lillian's No. One. LeHoullier found the name bland and boring and didn’t have high hopes that the seed would produce anything special. "But, I thought, this is a new tomato, so let's try it out," he said. "And I was just blown away by the flavor. It is a top-five in flavor and beauty, and it hardly has any seeds."

But it bothered him that Lillian's No. One wasn't a very good name, so he called it Lillian's Yellow Heirloom and started sending seeds to some seed companies, including Victory Seeds and Tomato Growers Supply. "So, it's starting to get widely grown and accepted."

Growing tips: "Lillian's Yellow Heirloom is no more difficult to grow than any of the larger heirlooms." LeHoullier said. "What makes it different is that it is typically one of the latest tomatoes to ripen. It therefore takes patience ... but that patience will be richly rewarded."

Flavor: The amount of flesh versus the size of the seed cavity makes this tomato a little exceptional. "If you were to think of the tomato equivalent of a piece of steak where you know it's just solid flesh, Lillian's Yellow has almost solid meat with just some tiny, tiny seed cavities spread throughout the periphery," LeHoullier said. "In fact, if you were to save seeds from it, you would get no more than 10, 15 or 20 seeds from a pound or a one-and-half-pound tomato. That is really on the low end. Many tomatoes will give you a couple of hundred seeds from a one-pound tomato. It is succulent and it melts in your mouth. Many people think that a tomato with that kind of texture will be dry and mealy, but this one just is just amazing. Like Cherokee Purple and Brandywine, it has intensity and balance. It's one of the tomatoes that I call delightful, not even knowing what that word means except that it sparkles in your mouth."

4. Viva Lindsey's Kentucky Heirloom (aka Kentucky Heirloom Viva)

Kentucky Heirloom Viva tomatoes
Kip Dawkins Photography, from 'Epic Tomatoes' by Craig LeHoullier (Storey Publishing)

LeHoullier confesses that this is not his favorite tomato to eat, but he loves the story behind it. That story begins, he said, at a time when he was captivated by the description of tomatoes in the Seed Savers Exchange. One description that especially intrigued him was about Viva Lindsey's Kentucky Heirloom, also known as Kentucky Heirloom Viva. The catalog described it as ivory white and delicious to eat, so he ordered it from a historical garden center in Kentucky. Viva Lindsey, he found out, was a friend of a family named Martin, and it was the Martin family who donated the tomato to the garden center.

The great aunt of Viva's fiancé gave her seeds of a tomato as a wedding gift in 1922, at which time the tomato was already called an heirloom. "I like to re-tell this story because I think of where we are today and when people get married they have registries and you buy them coffee pots they don't need and silver services that will probably never leave the closet. We live in a more narcissistic time in my view.

"Here we are in 1922, and there is this young girl, Viva Lindsey, getting married and receiving seeds of a tomato, and it was probably one of the most cherished wedding gifts she received. And it makes me think about simpler times and how nice it would be if we could all treasure the gift of seeds of a flower or a tomato or a bean just as equally as an Amazon Echo or an Apple iPod or something like that."

Growing tips: This is an incredibly vigorous and productive plant that LeHoullier said he grows every other year or every two-three years for the beauty of the fruit. "The plant produces 12- to16-ounce fruit that are truly an ivory color and on the very bottom is a pink blossom blush like mother of pearl," he said

Flavor: "When you cut it open, it's a seedier tomato than Lillian's Yellow. I would say it is not in my top 50 of flavor because it is a sweet mild tomato. But, if you want a tomato for a cheeseburger or a grilled cheese, or just you just want to lay it out and put some basil and Parmesan cheese on it just to enhance its flavor a little bit, it's worth growing."

5. Coyote

Coyote tomatoes on a clipped vine
Kip Dawkins Photography, from 'Epic Tomatoes' by Craig LeHoullier (Storey Publishing)

When LeHoullier caught the heirloom tomato bug, he was living in Pennsylvania and heirlooms were not that well known at the time. Because he was specializing in something unusual, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society asked him to put in a few displays at their fall harvest festival.

He complied and would bring a few hundred plants with tomatoes of all different shapes and sizes and lined them up and let people taste them. He remembers that being a lot of fun, and he especially remembers a woman name Maye Clement. She came to Pennsylvania from Mexico some years previously and brought him what he said was "the cutest little cluster of tomatoes, still on the vine, that were tiny, and almost pure white." Clement told LeHoullier that she brought the tomato from home, and that he could have it.

"After she gave me those tomatoes, she left me her contact information. I wrote to her and asked her to provide additional information. She wrote me back said the tomato grows wild in Vera Cruz, Mexico, where it is called tomatio sylvestre Amarylla. That translates into wild small yellow tomato," said LeHoullier, adding that Clement said it had picked up the nickname Coyote.

"Here's another example of someone who grows a tomato that may cause her to think of home, or being a child at home or of her kids," LeHoullier said. "Maybe it helps her think of what she has gained coming to America, or what she lost from Mexico. Maybe her growing this tomato reminds her of the flavors of home, and she felt strongly enough about wanting to share this that she brought me the actual tomatoes to grow. So, we are talking 27 years ago, and this is a tomato that grows all the time, and I sell seedlings from its fruit."

Growing tips: "Coyote grows like a weed — meaning it is unfussy, prolific and very easy to grow successfully," LeHoullier said. "One bonus is that it is not an issue to germinate."

Flavor: This is a polarizing tomato in terms of flavor. "Some people absolutely love it and can't get enough of it, and some people taste it and say I'll never grow that again," said LeHoullier. "It is extremely sweet and, like some white tomatoes, it has an unusual almost musky background flavor that some people find off-putting. I think of it as the cilantro of the tomato world. It does tend to divide people. But, again, what a nice little story."

Where to buy heirloom tomato seeds

LeHoullier co-leads a tomato breeding project that has succeeded in putting 70 new compact growing varieties in various seed catalogs. This will be the topic of his next book, which he plans to self-publish in the fall. Many companies carry seeds of all these varieties and some seeds of LeHoullier's full-size heirloom tomatoes. Along with the other companies mentioned throughout the article, The Tomato Growers Supply Company, Sample Seed, and Johnny's Selected Seeds are all great places to stock up on additional seeds.

Craig Lehoullier can be contacted for speaking engagements or for signed copies of his book by visiting his website, where you can also follow his blog.

Book cover image provided courtesy of Storey Publishing.