Edible Gardening

Go Beyond Red – Expand Your Tomato Color Palette

Consider the tomato. In grocery stores they are unappetizing pinkish red things, ominously piled up, hard to the touch and devoid of flavor. But gardeners today are lucky indeed, because never in horticultural history has there been a greater array of tomatoes to grow. The range of sizes, colors, shapes and flavors is limitless, and astounding.

Color in tomatoes is all about the combination of the skin and flesh color. For example, pink and red tomatoes look identical when cut, because the only difference is the yellow skin in red fruit and clear skin in pink fruit. Due to the efforts of Mother Nature (bees, mutations) and seed savers, we have tomatoes in many colors beyond pink and red, including shades of yellow, orange, white, green, purple, brown, and stripes and swirls of multiple colors.

Tomato flavors range from bland to intense, tart to sweet, simple to complex.  Recent tests show that the acidity of all tomatoes lies in a very narrow range. This means that there are not low acid tomatoes, no matter what the color. Those that taste sweet just have higher sugar levels, not less acid.

Whether you start your plants from seed or seedlings, here are some tomato varieties well worth trying for the way they will enrich your gardens and recipes. I’ve grown them all many times in my Raleigh gardens, so they should do well for you.

If you prefer red tomatoes, expand beyond the Boy and Girl hybrids and seek out Nepal, Andrew Rahart’s Jumbo Red or Aker’s West Virginia. If you like a pink tomato like German Johnson, you may find the flavors of Brandywine and Anna Russian even better.

The real fun begins with the more unusual colors. So-called “black” tomatoes are very popular, and rightly so. Cherokee Purple (which I actually named back in 1990) leads the pack, but Black Krim, Black from Tula and Cherokee Chocolate are all great.

Yellow and orange tomatoes provide lovely color options in salads, and vary from the sharp tartness of bright yellow Azoychka to the mellow sweetness of glowing orange Kellogg’s Breakfast. My favorite yellow is Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom, with a flavor that is the equal of the best red and pink varieties, and Lemon Boy is nearly as fine. Of course, no list would be complete without the orange hybrid cherry tomato Sungold. Most people who try it develop a life-long craving.

Taking tomato colors even further, there are plenty of great tasting varieties that ripen to a lovely ivory shade (Coyote, White Queen), yellow with marbling of intense crimson (Lucky Cross, Gold Medal), or distinctly striped (Tiger Tom and Pink Berkeley Tie Dye).

Perhaps nothing in the tomato world matches the class of tomatoes that stay green when fully ripe. Such varieties as Cherokee Green, Green Giant and Aunt Ruby’s German Green are simply among the best tasting tomatoes in existence.

These varieties can be found by doing a simple web search for seed companies that carry them. Farmers markets and garden centers also carry larger selections of tomato varieties each year. For a bonus, just about all of these unusually colored, non-hybrid varieties have interesting histories associated with them, but that’s another story.

Craig LeHoullier, tomato adviser for the Seed Savers Exchange, gardens in Raleigh and is working on his first book on tomatoes. His blog can be found at nctomatoman.com.

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