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

Treasures from our agricultural past, 'Turner’s Hybrid,' aka 'Mikado,' tomatoes have a unique history and impact on the rest of their family.

  • Photo courtesy www.RobCardillo.com
  • 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.
    Photo courtesy www.RobCardillo.com
  • A color trade card from 1887 advertises Turner’s Hybrid or Mikado tomato.
    Photo courtesy William Woys Weaver

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

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