Varieties of tomatoes have increased rapidly in recent years, as breeders and growers have attempted to keep up with consumer demand.
A picky and apparently insatiable bunch, the tomato-loving public has at times lusted after varieties claiming to be the largest, earliest, meatiest, least-acidic, most compact, or longest-keeping tomatoes. This group has both strong preferences and an astonishing willingness to experiment. (Average orders from some catalogs include 10 varieties.)
So what tomatoes have gardeners excited right now?
Small, intensely flavored, bite-sized tomatoes are among the stars this season, according to several seed houses and growers.
"After the grape tomatoes like 'Santa' -- which we sold out of very early -- and 'Juliette,' I would pick 'Sun Gold,' a yellow cherry that's really in demand. It's so sweet it's called 'farmer's candy,' " says Vicki Duguay, public relations specialist at Johnny's Selected Seeds in Albion, Maine, which caters to both home gardeners and commercial growers.
" 'Matt's Wild Cherry,' an indigenous cherry tomato from Hidalgo, Mexico, which is a phenomenal producer, has also been big," she says.
Duguay also says that the cluster of these small tomatoes on the vine are attractive in the garden and add visual appeal.
One of the largest companies in the United States specializing in tomatoes is Tomato Growers Supply. Owned by husband and wife team Linda and Vince Sapp, TGS boasts almost 400 varieties to choose from and sends out an estimated half-million seed packets a year.
"Among the new offerings, the grape tomatoes are the ones everyone wants most," Linda Sapp says. "We stock 'Santa,' but we're sold out for this year. That one went through the roof."
Heirlooms are the other top sellers at Tomato Growers Supply, which is based in Fort Myers, Florida.
"The heirlooms offer people great flavor and diversity of color, shape and sizes," says Linda Sapp.
Especially popular, she says, are all the 'Brandywines' -- pink, red, "black" (purple) and yellow -- for their outstanding flavor. 'Caspian Pink,' another large fruited heirloom, is also selling well.
Totally Tomatoes of Augusta, Georgia, is another catalog devoted mainly to tomatoes. It fills more than 50,000 orders a year and sells more than 250 varieties. The red and yellow pear tomatoes are very popular here, along with cherries such as 'Sweet Chelsea' and 'Sweet Million.'
"People are getting much more adventurous," says Joel Gugliette, greenhouse manager at Garland's Gardens in Catonsville.
Though Garland's still sells long-time favorites such as 'Better Boy,' 'Early Girl,' 'Jetstar,' 'Celebrity' and the extremely popular heirloom 'Rutgers,' Gugliette says, "The prime criteria is getting to be taste, more than just having the first or biggest tomato."
Even those who don't have green thumbs can be on the cutting edge of tomato culture.
Terri Lehman, produce buyer for the Sutton Place Gourmet chain of gourmet food stores in Baltimore, Washington and Northern Virginia, says that customers there have definite favorites.
"People are really getting more sophisticated in their taste," she says. "A lot of our customers are very hip to what's happening in the food world and expect to find those varieties in our produce department."
Among the tomatoes Sutton Place carries, Lehman cites the heirlooms as eliciting the most attention. "There's 'Brandywine,' of course. 'Cherokee Red,' 'German Stripe,' a very low acid variety, and 'Green Zebra,' which is grown locally for us," she says.
* Originally a pea-sized member of the nightshade family, tomatoes are native to Peru and were long believed to be poisonous.
* Tomatoes have become the most widely eaten vegetable in America. Nearly every person in this country eats something made out of tomatoes every day: The average person eats 70 pounds of processed and 18 pounds of fresh tomatoes each year.
* In 1893, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that although botanically a fruit, culturally speaking, tomatoes were a vegetable.
* A seed bank of more than 4,000 heirloom varieties is maintained at the Seed Savers Exchange farm in Decorah, Iowa
Source: "The Great Tomato Book" by Sheila Buff (Buford Books, 1999)
Tomato Growers Supply Company
P.O. Box 2237
Fort Myers, Fla. 33902
P.O. Box 1626
Augusta, Ga. 30903
Johnny's Selected Seeds
310 Foss Hill Road
Albion, Maine 04910