What’s new in the world of tomatoes? Blue
Tomatoes are the most popular vegetable grown in home gardens and they come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and colors – pears, plums, grapes and currants; pleated, smooth, scalloped and downright ugly; red, yellow, orange, pink, purple, green, black and now blue.
Blue? Actually it is more of a deep purply-black, eggplant-like color. In these so-called blue tomatoes, the pigment becomes darkest where the skin is exposed to the most sunlight and the dark color is only skin-deep; the inside of the tomato is red. The first commercially available blue tomato called “Indigo Rose” was developed at Oregon State University by Dr. Jim Myers. He found wild tomatoes growing in Peru and the Galapagos Islands that contained high levels of anthocyanin, a powerful antioxidant most commonly found in blueberries, grapes, blackberries and red cabbage. After 12 years of breeding and crossbreeding the wild blue species (which were not very tasty) with red tomatoes he was able to create an edible blue tomato with the added health benefit of anthocyanin’s disease-fighting properties. Though I have never grown it, the flavor has been described by many as “lackluster”.
Two other well-known tomato breeders have taken the idea of blue tomatoes to another level by using heirloom tomatoes known for their great flavor to cross with “Indigo Rose” and other blue tomatoes grown at Oregon State. Now there are lots of blue varieties coming to the marketplace. Brad Gates of Wild Boar Farms created “Blue Beauty,” a cross between delicious heirloom “Beauty King” and “Indigo Rose.” It bears large, beefsteak-type tomatoes with dark, blue-black skin and meaty pink flesh. “Blueberries” are very dark blue cherry tomatoes that are intensely sweet, and “Indigo Apple” is a medium-sized red with purpley-blue streaks that not only has high levels of antioxidants but was ranked as having the largest amounts of lycopene and vitamin C. Truly a healthy super tomato! All of these are available from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.
Tom Wagner of Tater ’Mater Seeds has crossed “Indigo Rose” with his well-known creation “Green Zebra” to make “Blue-Green Zebra” a green-fleshed fruit with blue and green striped skin. “Muddy Waters” also has green flesh but a totally dark blue skin.
“Blue Streak” is another striped variety with red flesh and blue skin streaked with red. A vigorous, productive plant, it bears large tomatoes with great flavor. Speaking of flavor, Wagner’s small salad tomato “Clackamas Blueberry” was voted best-tasting blue tomato in taste tests. He has developed several varieties of blue cherry tomatoes as well. Look for “Fahrenheit Blues,” “Blue Pitts,” and “Helsing Junction Blue.” Seeds for his tomatoes are available from his website, tatermater.com.
“Indigo Rose” and the others developed by Gates and Wagner are all open-pollinated, not hybrids, so you can save their seeds to grow the next season. They have been bred and crossbred enough times to produce a stable seed that will come true to its parent, unlike F1 hybrids, which will not reliably produce fruit that is the same as the parent plant’s.
Other blue tomatoes have been developed by splicing color genes from snapdragons and blueberries onto the tomato’s genes. Because of this tinkering at the genetic level, they are considered GMOs – genetically modified organisms – and are banned in most European countries. In these tomatoes, the color extends to the flesh, making them truly blue tomatoes. I have not seen any of these being offered for sale in the United States yet. They are being grown commercially in Canada, mainly to make blue tomato juice. This juice is being studied for its high anthocyanin content and is seen by many to be an innovative way to get more of the disease-preventing, anti-inflammatory compound into peoples’ diets.
Planting time is almost upon us, so keep an eye out for interesting new tomatoes to grow when you are shopping for plants this month; you have 7,500 varieties from which to choose!
Just a few tips when setting out your tomatoes: Wait until night temperatures are reliably higher than 45 degrees unless you provide some sort of protection for your plants, such as row covers or wall o’ waters. NPK is rated on every fertilizer package – N for nitrogen, P for phosphorus, and K for potassium. High nitrogen – the first number on the package – may seem like a good thing, but for tomatoes it is not. It will encourage rampant growth but not much fruiting. Phosphorus is important for high yields, so look for a fertilizer with a higher middle number.