Tomato guru Craig LeHoullier’s first book, Epic Tomatoes, celebrates some 250 varieties of our favorite summer garden staple. His decades of devotion to heirloom seeds have paid off — for all of us. Come BLT season, farmers markets throughout the state are bursting with tomatoes of every hue and shape. But don’t miss these six picks.
•CHEROKEE PURPLE, renowned for its rich, sweet flavor, is the tomato that launched LeHoullier’s reputation as an heirloom guru. In 1990, he received a packet of seeds from J.D. Green of Sevierville, Tennessee. In a letter, Green noted that the seeds came to him via a woman whose neighbors had gotten them from Cherokee Indians about 100 years earlier. LeHoullier was happy to test them in his garden and was delighted with the results. Until then, all tomatoes called “purple” were actually pink in appearance. This was the first tomato to turn purple near its shoulders. To name the variety, LeHoullier took inspiration from the seeds’ origin story, and the rest is heirloom tomato history.
• RED BRANDYWINEis not genetically related to the more famous Brandywine (just one word, like Cher), a beefy heirloom that’s difficult to grow but rewards gardeners with amazing flavor. The Red Brandywine is more modest — medium in size, thin-skinned — but with flavorful, low-acid fruit. Best of all, it consistently grows well in North Carolina — no easy feat with our heat.
• SUN GOLD is the ideal gateway fruit for tomato-averse eaters. When these cherry tomatoes reach full ripeness, they’re incredibly sweet. Children who aren’t sold on the texture of tomatoes will pop these like candy. Sun Golds are a hybrid, not an heirloom, but they’re easy to grow, and they earn their annual inclusion in any vegetable garden.
• DWARF MR. SNOWis named for A.C. Snow, a longtime columnist at the Raleigh News & Observer. In the 1990s, Snow wrote about how the tomatoes at the local farmers market fell far short of the homegrown tomatoes of his childhood. LeHoullier invited Snow to visit his garden and sample the tomatoes that the columnist thought no longer existed. And just like that, Snow’s faith in tomatoes was restored. Years later, as part of a dwarf tomato breeding project, LeHoullier named a tomato after the writer whose last name was ideal for this nearly ivory variety. LeHoullier raves about its bright, tart flavor — unusual, given that tomatoes of this color are usually bland and sweet. In fact, one year at LeHoullier’s annual tomato tasting, guests ranked it the best of the best.
• LUCKY CROSS is the result of a happy accident in LeHoullier’s garden, when a bee cross-pollinated a Brandywine and an experimental tomato variety called Tad. In collaboration with retired Duke University professor Larry Bohs — a fellow tomato gardening enthusiast — LeHoullier helped develop this stunning tomato: a yellow-and-red-swirled fruit with Brandywine’s knockout flavor.
• LILLIAN’S YELLOW HEIRLOOMis another heirloom tomato that grows well in North Carolina gardens, despite our weather challenges and disease pressures. This variety ripens late, but the flavor is so fantastic that it’s worth the wait. Unlike other yellow and orange varieties that typically offer a mild, sweet, or bland flavor, this heirloom offers an intense, rich flavor and meaty flesh with few seeds. So gardeners who like to save their seeds for the next year should plan accordingly, before this summer’s crop is all gobbled up.
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