Turner’s Hybrid or Mikado: The Best of the Victorian Tomatoes

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The Turner’s Hybrid (right) is almost seedless due to the density of the flesh, whereas Brandywine (left) contains larger and more regularly spaced seed cells.
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A color trade card from 1887 advertises Turner’s Hybrid or Mikado tomato.

In 1886, a small tomato war erupted between two of the most aggressive seed companies in the United States: W. Atlee Burpee of Philadelphia and Peter Henderson of New York. The “war,” if we want to call it that, consisted of two vigorous and competing advertising campaigns to market a new tomato called ‘Turner’s Hybrid’ or ‘Mikado.’ Burpee favored the name ‘Turner’s Hybrid’ (although ‘Mikado’ clearly appears in the firm’s advertising), while Henderson favored ‘Mikado.’

‘Turner’s Hybrid’ referred to the Iowa source of the original seed and presumed creator (whose biography remains murky), while ‘Mikado’ borrowed its name from the then wildly popular Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera of the same name, which opened in London on March 14, 1885. It is obvious that Peter Henderson wanted to cash in on the ‘Mikado’ craze just then sweeping the country. And if history is to be any judge, the case for ‘Mikado’ has won out because in Europe mikadofolium is now accepted botanical nomenclature for describing all tomatoes with potato-like leaves. 

That Potato Leaf

The potato-like leaf is one of the original distinguishing features of ‘Turner’s Hybrid, and this trait has been passed down to later tomatoes which derive from it. Both Burpee and Henderson made a point to mention the unique leaves as though this were the first time American growers had seen such a thing.

The truth of the matter is that the 1876 catalog of New York seedsman Robert J. Reeves advertised a dwarf foreign variety (country of origin not mentioned) for a broad leaf tomato with an “entirely new and distinct brilliant red” color. That tomato possessed both the potato-like leaves and the crimson-raspberry color of the original ‘Turner’s Hybrid’ or ‘Mikado.’ There is certainly not much argument over what constitutes a potato-leaf tomato even though they are often incorrectly styled as “German” (old potato-leaf landraces can be found in many parts of Central America and Mexico, Grimpant du Mexique for example).

Color Classification

The real issue is in the highly idiosyncratic way in which the tomato colors are classified, mainly because English is devoid of the precise terms for the unusual shades associated with ‘Turner’s Hybrid’ and its descendants. Peter Henderson described the color in his original 1886 catalog as “purplish red like Acme.” Burpee chose “brilliant red” but admitted that due to the instability of the hybrid cross, other colors also emerge. What we know for certain is that the tomato was not so-called “tomato red.”

This tallies with much more reliable and even-handed reports about the tomato coming from England where in the October 18, 1890 issue of The Garden a well-known grower first reported the “two forms” of ‘Turner’s Hybrid’ (under the preferred name ‘Mikado’). I have reported in an earlier issue of Heirloom Gardener that ‘Brandywine’ emerged from this genetic mix, and further research has confirmed this to the extent that most seedsmen in the United States refused to recognize ‘Brandywine’ as a distinct or superior variety, but rather little more than a selection of ‘Turner’s Hybrid’ — one reason it is rarely listed in any seed catalogs other than Johnson & Stokes who claimed ‘Brandywine’s’ introduction. 

The true character of the original ‘Turner’s Hybrid’ or ‘Mikado’ tomato is not difficult to determine because this heirloom variety is not extinct, and survives in the two forms first mentioned by the English in 1890. I acquired the original (potato leaf) form in 1993 while lecturing at the Salem County Historical Society in Salem, N.J. The seed was given to me by a local farmer who had maintained a number of heirlooms that had been grown locally since the late 1800s.

In 1997, while attending a muskrat dinner at the V.F.W. Hall in Salem, another local farmer met up with me and supplied me with the other ‘Turner’s Hybrid,’ a plant with virtually the same fruit but with “regular” gray-green leaves. It would appear that due to the original instability of the hybrid cross, one strain of ‘Turner’s Hybrid’ migrated back to a regular leaf and has remained that way ever since. The English report of two types seems to confirm that this happened fairly soon after the variety was released in 1886. Furthermore, when we compare ‘Turner’s Hybrid’ side-by-side with ‘Sudduth’s Brandywine’ (as distributed by Seed Saver’s Exchange), it’s easy to see that the two tomatoes are not exactly the same.

New Variety?

The skin of ‘Turner’s Hybrid’ is the same color as the flesh: bright raspberry crimson or to some people “purple-rose.” The tomato is almost seedless due to the density of the flesh, whereas ‘Brandywine’ contains larger and more regularly spaced seed cells. And while the two tomatoes have similar flesh color, the skin of ‘Brandywine’ is red or at times almost orange-pink. This changes the way the eye sees the overall color — although difficult to record with a camera. The question begs asking: Does different skin color translate into a new variety? How distinct must a tomato be in order to stand alone as a variety unlike others? I do not propose to answer that question here but one thing is obvious: ‘Brandywine’ cannot hold its own against either ‘Turner’s Hybrid’ potato-leaf or regular strain. And while the vines of ‘Turner’s Hybrid’ are thick, monstrously long and tangled, and thus should be trellised like grapes, fruit production is also copious and lasts well into the fall long after ‘Brandywine’ has declined. 

This resistance to cool nights is perhaps one reason German plant breeders turned their attention to potato-leaf varieties. They used ‘Turner’s Hybrid’ aka ‘Mikado’ to create a wide number of small-fruited tomatoes better suited to their climate. Some of these, like ‘Quedlinburger Frühe Liebe’ (Mikado x Allerste) first released in 1951, are still available through Seed Savers Exchange, and as progeny of the original ‘Turner’s Hybrid,’ they make excellent garden plants for those parts of the country where cool nights are endemic during the summer.

William Woys Weaveris an internationally known food historian, author, and heirloom gardener living in Devon, Pennsylvania.

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