Friends go back in time to find great tomato flavor Seeds: Search for old-fashioned taste leads to a garden full of heirloom plants.

October 05, 1997|By Margaret Ferry and Jon Traunfeld | Margaret Ferry and Jon Traunfeld,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A fresh-off-the-vine ripe tomato has a wonderful flavor halfway between sweet and tart. It was a search for that memorable taste that drove Chuck Wyatt to experiment with dozens of different tomatoes in his Rosedale garden.

He first began growing tomatoes in the early 1980s, when he retired after 20 years of service in the military. He was looking for that distinctive flavor he remembered from his grandfather's farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. "I couldn't find a flavor I liked," Chuck remembers. "I tried all the hybrids."

Then, in 1983, while visiting Thomas Jefferson's gardens at Monticello, Chuck discovered his destiny. "I bought some seeds of 'Crimson Cushion' -- an original beefsteak and I found that old-fashioned flavor again."

Fourteen years later in his back yard in Rosedale and in the Baltimore County community gardens at Double Rock Park, Chuck, with the help of friends Jack Schaeffer and Vernon Poe, raises more than 120 tomato varieties.

The saved seeds from these fruits will become part of his collection of 350 varieties that Chuck shares, swaps and sells.

"All the gardeners here at the park got real curious about growing heirloom tomatoes," says Jack.

Fruit of many colors

A tour last month through the rows of carefully tended tomato plants revealed that tomatoes aren't just red -- their colors range from rosy pinks, to purplish reds, and to crimson. In fact, there are shades of golden orange, lemon yellow, and a light green, beefsteak type called 'Aunt Ruby's German Green' which Chuck claims "is an outstanding green variety."

When he points out one of his favorite tricolored varieties, 'Big Rainbow' (golden yellow with a orange and red blush), we begin to appreciate even more the work of Chuck and fellow heirloom gardeners.

Many of these old varieties have fanciful and descriptive names. There's the classic red beefsteak variety called 'Abe Lincoln,' which was popular with home gardeners in the 1920s.

And who can forget a name like 'Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter'? Chuck says, "It was developed by Charlie Byles of Logan, W. Va., in the 1930s. He had a radiator repair shop, but also sold tomato plants for the unheard-of price of one dollar each. It was the sales from these plants that paid off his mortgage in six years."

Chuck's plum or sauce types of tomatoes include 'Banana Legs,' an orange-yellow tomato that we found sweet and meaty with few seeds, 'Amish Paste,' 'Opalka' and 'Czech Plum.'

We're then introduced to 'Stump of the World,' 'Old Brooks' and 'Shirley S' (given to Chuck by an Amish buggy driver). Chuck points out varieties from Australia, Russia and Italy and notes the specific flavors and uses of each.

We're also shown a slice of America's past with 'Old Virginia' ("a big old beefsteak grown by the Giltnner family of Virginia for over 50 years") 'Cherokee Purple,' grown by Cherokee Indians and early settlers of Tennessee, and 'Paragon,' developed for home gardeners in the 1870s. Chuck considers the latter "an outstanding producer with that old-time flavor." And who can resist 'The 1884' after hearing that this plant was found growing on a riverbank by Johnstown, Pa., just after the flood -- a real survivor?

So where has the old-fashioned flavor gone? Chuck says there are many reasons for the tasteless tomatoes of today, but the chief one he believes is that seed companies in recent years have become primarily interested in developing commercial varieties with disease resistance that have tough skins, are uniform in shape and ripen at the same time.

On the other hand, the good news is that a couple of dozen small seed companies have popped up over the past 15 years that specialize in heirloom varieties. Seed-saving groups of interested gardeners, like the Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), have also emerged. SSE has more than 8,000 members, making it the largest nongovernmental organization in the world working to save heirloom varieties of vegetables and fruits from extinction. SSE members grow these varieties, save the seeds and offer them to other members through the exchange's annual yearbook.

Tomato talk

Save your own seeds

(only from open-pollinated, nonhybrid varieties)

* Scoop out the seeds and pulp of your largest, prettiest tomatoes into a plastic container.

* Allow the seeds to sit and ferment for 3 to 4 days in 1 to 2 inches of water.

* The good seeds will sink to the bottom and the pulp and debris will float to the top. Strain and clean the good seeds.

* Spread the cleaned seeds out on a paper plate and allow them to dry for 2-3 weeks.

* Store seeds in a glass container in a cool location. The seeds will remain viable for at least five years. Store seeds in a freezer to further extend their life.

What is an heirloom variety?

Taylor's Guide to Heirloom Vegetables defines an heirloom variety as one that:

* Can reproduce itself from seed. All heirloom tomatoes are open-pollinated and come "true to type." Hybrid varieties are created from the intentional crossing of two open-pollinated varieties. The seed saved from these hybrids will not come "true to type."

* Was introduced more than 50 years ago.

* Has a history of its own.

Getting started:

Here's a list of places to order seed and get more information:

* Chuck Wyatt, 5421 Princess Drive, Rosedale, Md. 21237; 410-687-8665.

* Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (catalog, $2), P.O. Box 170, Earlysville, Va. 22936; 804-973-4703.

* Landis Valley Museum Heirloom Seed Project (catalog, $2.50), 2451 Kissel Hill Road, Lancaster, Pa. 17601; 717-569-0401.

Pub Date: 10/05/97

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