Heirloom Recovered: The Terra-Cotta Tomato

A food historian and heirloom gardener is given the chance to grow an old and rare variety of tomato, restoring it to its true type.

  • Terra-Cotta's flesh is orange-brown, tinged in the center with pink. The seed mass is brown-green, and the skin is papery, thick, and dark orange.
    Photo by www.robcardillo.com
  • This modern Terra-Cotta Tomato the author is growing today is not quite as large as the original, although some vines seem to be producing increasingly larger and larger fruit.
    Photo courtesy of www.RareSeeds.com
  • J.M. Thorburn & Company of New York introduced the Terra-Cotta Tomato in 1893, and it was featured in a chromolithograph that served as the frontispiece for their 1893 catalog.
    Illustration courtesy of William Woys Weaver

One of my ongoing projects for the Roughwood Seed Collection has been the restoration of heirloom varieties that have come down to us not exactly in their purest genetic forms.

Sometimes the corn produces cobs of different lengths (or tassels of different colors); sometimes the tomatoes yield a wild variety of shapes; sometimes the beans share pink and white flowers on the same vines — all tell-tale signs that something is “off.” These traits can be corrected, but they require time and patience, especially a discerning eye for subtle features that most people might pass over. This is called roguing, and there is an art to roguing, which is the science of weeding out genetic impurities. Unfortunately, this is something that is not often taught in agricultural schools because in some respects it is an art. It requires a certain instinct and, of course, a certain heartlessness to pull up what otherwise might look like a perfectly good pepper or lettuce. This brings me to the story of Thorburn’s Terra-Cotta Tomato.

When J. M. Thorburn & Company, New York seedsmen, went into bankruptcy in 1921 after being in business 119 years, most of the firm’s accumulated seed stock simply disappeared. Companies like Thorburn used to maintain vast seed libraries in order to dip into them for breeding purposes, thus the annual catalogs only reflected a much smaller list of things that were available for sale. Thorburn had access to some of the best seed collections in the world, and used those connections to introduce unusual varieties not seen in other American seed lists. The firm introduced the Terra Cotta Tomato in 1893.  In fact, it was featured in a chromolithograph that served as the frontispiece for the 1893 catalog. 

Right away you can see from the chromo that the tomato is unusual because of its color. Thorburn claimed it was unique in many other ways too: flavor, keeping qualities, and a good shipper. The list of pluses was long and glowing. I had long assumed that the Terra Cotta Tomato was extinct like so many other unusual heirlooms from the 19th century, a victim of that 1921 bankruptcy sale that cleaned out the company’s assets overnight. Happily I was proved wrong, but the road to genetic recovery was a bumpy one and only now, some 19 years later, can I say with a degree of certainty that the unusual Terra Cotta Tomato still lives.

I will not speculate about the parentage of this tomato, although I suspect that a brown-fleshed grandfather may be in the genealogy. Nor do we know who actually created the tomato. Thorburn acquired it from a farmer or plant breeder; that much is clear. The tomato made quite a splash when it was first introduced but it never went too far beyond the Thorburn seed catalogs — I do not think it was fully stable and the thick skin (which made it good for shipping) could grow tough, so much so that you had to peel the tomato in order to eat it. On the other hand, the tomato is not subject to cracking, even in the rainiest weather, so this trait can be turned into a plus.

Seeds for the Terra Cotta Tomato came into the Roughwood Seed Collection in 1993. They were part of a parcel of seeds given to me while lecturing in Salem, New Jersey. These were a gift from an old farmer who was selling his ancestral property to a developer and wanted his heirlooms to find a new and safer home. Including Atlantic Prize and Turner’s Hybrid (aka Mikado), his gift was a treasure trove of South Jersey tomatoes that seemed to have fallen out of a time machine.

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