How often can one (reasonably) lump tomatoes and dinosaurs into the same sentence? Probably not very often, which is why I’m taking advantage of the unique opportunity. As strange as it might seem to say, though, it’s not a set-up for a joke: There are heirloom tomatoes in danger of going the way of dinosaurs (extinct, that is—not going to New York City).
According to Slow Food USA, there are 17 varieties of tomatoes in the U.S. alone in their “living catalog of…delicious and culturally significant foods in danger of extinction,” called the Ark of Taste. The Ark of Taste sounds nice, but it’s not a very desirable title to earn. To get on the list, a food has to be endangered, which they define as: “Produced in limited quantities, these foods will not be around in another generation or two without immediate action. Risk factors may be biological, commercial, or cultural.” And it’s not just heirloom tomatoes: There are more than 200 foods on the list, just in the United States. The International Ark of Taste has over 3,500 endangered products from over 150 countries on it. If that’s not a strong argument for increasing and maintaining crop diversity ASAP, I don’t know what is.
"Heirloom" isn't just a label slapped on the more homely-looking tomatoes in order to charge more for them. At the most basic level, heirloom tomatoes are open pollinated. Meaning, the seeds “breed true”: You can save the seeds (1, below) from heirloom tomatoes, grow them, and the resulting tomatoes will be like the one you saved the seeds from (unless they are cross-pollinated by bees or other insects). In contrast, seeds from hybrids will grow tomatoes that display a variety of characteristics from the cultivars that were combined to create the hybrid.
Note: All heirloom tomatoes are open pollinated, but not all open-pollinated tomatoes are heirlooms.
Hybrids rose in popularity because that mix of genetic material is intended to help the plants overcome diseases, and thus increase yield for farmers—though some would argue the trade-off is a loss of flavor. Craig LeHoullier writes in his book Epic Tomatoes,
“There are good reasons for commercial operations to focus on hybrids (such as a more concentrated harvest that works well for machine harvesting, specific disease resistance for a particular area, or smooth, uniform fruit for a particular market) but far fewer reasons for home gardeners to do so. The variety of color, shape, size, and flavor is significantly limited with hybrid tomato choices.”
He also notes that the release of Burpee’s Big Boy tomato in 1949 marked a big change in tomato cultivar development by seed companies, as the vast majority of new varieties were hybrids:
“Given this, to my thinking, heirlooms are open-pollinated varieties that originated before 1950, whether they came from families in the United States or overseas, or from commercial ventures. This also creates two categories of heirlooms: the true family heirlooms that may have interesting backgrounds (such as Brandywine), and non-hybrid, pre-1950 varieties developed and sold by seed companies, such as Golden Queen.”
(Elsewhere, LeHoulllier is credited with creating two additional categories of heirloom tomatoes, but these two are sufficient for thinking about the tomatoes at risk of going extinct.)
These are the 17 varieties of tomatoes currently in danger of extinction in the United States and a little bit more information about their history and flavor—all of which comes from Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste:
This bright red-orange tomato was discovered in Wisconsin, but its origins are actually in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (the heart of the Amish Country).
This large (often one pound or more each), beefsteak-type tomato is pale green with a hint of yellow striping.
This small, deep-red tomato gets its name from Luther Burbank, the famous horticulturist, who developed the Burbank tomato in 1914.
This deep-red, medium-sized ( 3- to 4-inch) tomato is a fast producer (about 60 or so days), hence the “Early Jewel” part of its name, and was created by James Chalk of Norristown, Pennsylvania. It's a juicy tomato that's described as spicy without being sour.
Probably the most widely-known tomato on this list, this dusty-rose tomato is "extremely sweet with a rich, smoky taste." It was rediscovered by Craig LeHoullier, who says that it was more than 100 years old and originated with the Cherokee people.
This tomato is a large, intensely orange fruit that was developed by Djena (pronounced "Zshena") Lee, who was part Native American and the daughter of Minnesota financier Jim Lee. It was grown in the 1920s, given to Reverend Morrow when he was 15, and has been grown by his family since 1929. It also won first place at the Chicago Fair 10 years in a row!
This large (1- to 2-pound), meaty tomato is a Bavarian variety that is currently grown in Festina, Iowa. The German Pink tomato has a "full sweet flavor, even floral, and it is tender skinned."
This tomato was brought through Ellis Island with the Inciardi family, who carried their entire food supply from Sicily in the form of seeds sown into their clothing, out of fear of confiscation upon immigration. The family moved directly to Chicago, and the tomato has been grown there (and only there) since 1900, but as of 2014, only about a dozen people were growing the Inciardi Tomato and saving its seed.
This tomato originated in Missouri and has come back from the brink of extinction not once, but twice. Although it was grown for generations, its cultivation slowed until only one family in Missouri was growing it. In the late 1980s, a branch of the family that had stopped growing the tomato was approached by an uncle with six Ivan seeds. Those six seeds were the start of a successful business, the Heartland Family Nursery, which had an important social mission of healing veterans with PTSD. Heartland Family Nursery has since closed, but it seems the Ivan tomato and the family’s mission will live on: “In 2009, farmers who had been inspired by Jerry’s work and the Ivan tomato’s flavor, utility and cultiv-ease undertook a project to keep the variety in widespread commercial production. This project continues in 2016 with plans to grow, can and sell the Ivan tomato and its seeds to grow its reach.” And the business is staying true to the original spirit by donating 10% of sales to programs that rehabilitate veterans with agricultural therapy.
This is prize-winning, medium-sized (three-inch), rose-red tomato that is a cross of Livingston’s New Stone and Ponderosa. It’s said to be good for canning (due to its high acidity) and is described as: “Pretty and pale, it kicks you in the mouth with a lot of flavor, but the taste doesn’t linger.”
This is a pale yellow, medium-sized tomato that has a pink blush on the bottom when it’s ripe and is said to leave a "little sting on the tip of the tongue and a long lingering finish." According to Livingston, he improved upon a yellow tomato a grower gave him at a country fair, giving it its current name in 1882 and modestly declaring it to be the best-flavored tomato in existence.
This deep-orange, heart-shaped tomato is a family heirloom from the Virginias region of the U.S. and often weighs in at one pound or more.
The story behind this tomato alone is worth reviving its popularity: “This tomato was developed by M.C. Byles (went by Charlie) of Logan, West Virgina in the 1930s. Charlie owned a radiator repair shop and had no plant breeding experience—this tomato was the only breeding work he ever did. Charlie took 10 tomatoes and put them in a circle with a German Johnson tomato in the center. He collected pollen from the 10 outer tomatoes in a baby’s ear syringe and then squirted it on the flowers of the German Johnson. After seven years he had a stable tomato with the qualities he wanted. He was a good marketer and sold his seedlings for $1 each. After 6 years he was able to pay off the $6,000 mortgage on his house.”
This is a large tomato, typically about one pound in weight when grown now, but when it was first released by the John A. Salzer Seed Company of La Crosse, Wisconsin in 1894, it seems specimens were even larger. The 1895 Salzer Seed Company Catalog says, “This monster, this leviathan, this giant, measures almost 2 feet in circumference. We studied for an appropriate name and finally concluded to name it Ferris Wheel Tomato, in honor of one of the greatest inventions of the age. This Tomato possesses every good quality to be found in a Tomato.”
This is a paste tomato that’s good fresh or for canning; it’s been grown since the early part of the 20th century in Sheboygan, Wisconsin by Lithuanian immigrants.
This is a pink, beefsteak-style tomato that can weigh in at up to 2 pounds and is said to be “one of the best tasting heirloom tomatoes available to gardeners today,” as it has an "incredibly rich, delightfully intense tomato flavor.”
This is a bright orange family heirloom from Maine that grows well in cooler climates. The origins of its name are unclear: Some people believe it came from Valencia, Spain, while others claim its color and smooth, round shape resulted in it being named after its resemblance to a Valencia orange. It has been described as "bursting with flavor, rich and buttery as well as pineapple-like, sweet and refreshing, like a really ripe ground cherry.”
Look for these tomatoes at your neighborhood farmers market, ask your local farmer to consider growing one of the varieties, or take matters into your own hands and grow your own. Ark of Taste seeds are available from these organizations:
Tell us: What's your favorite extinct or endangered thing?