Thorburn’s Terracotta Tomato

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Grant Thorburn (1773-1863) was a Scottish nail-maker who came to New York City in 1794, at the age of 21, and later began selling seeds. In 1822, G. Thorburn & Son released the first illustrated seed catalogue. Later, the seed business was renamed as J. M. Thorburn & Company. In 1893, the company introduced the terracotta tomato and featured a chromolithograph of this new variety on the frontispiece of their catalogue.

Thorburn’s terracotta tomato is named for its distinctive color: It has honey-brown skin and green shoulders. Due to the thickness of its skin, tomatoes of this variety store well and are easy to transport. The flesh is orange-pink and the seed mass is greenish. It is a semi-determinate variety, the plants growing to a height of about 2 meters. It reaches maturity in 75 days and produces quite a heavy crop, though productivity quickly drops off as cooler weather sets in. The tomatoes are usually about 8 centimeters in diameter and 180 grams. Unlike many heirloom tomatoes, which can be deeply ribbed and irregular in shape, Thorburn’s terracotta has a uniform acorn-like shape and a relatively smooth surface. Thorburn seed company developed this variety by crossing various hybrids; the grandmother variety was called “peach” due to its fuzzy skin. Though not fuzzy, the terracotta tomato’s skin is lusterless and appears slightly downy.

Thorburn’s terracotta is a versatile tomato that can be enjoyed raw, cooked, or turned into sauce or salsa. It has a rich but balanced sweet and tangy flavor with a touch of acidity and salinity, and its flesh is solid but tender. Sauces made from this variety have a pleasant pumpkin orange color and floral aroma.

J. M. Thorburn & Company went bankrupt in 1921, after 119 years in operation, and much of its vast seed library was lost. Fortunately, the terracotta tomato has been recovered from seeds found by the grandson of a Depression-era seed saver. Seeds are now available from a handful of specialty suppliers.

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StateUnited States

New York

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Vegetables and vegetable preserves

Nominated by:Mimi Edelman