Flavor Secrets of Potato Leaf Tomatoes

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'Black Brandywine' tomatoes

I grew up in a muggy climate where everyone grew ‘Better Boy’ tomatoes, which are big, red tomatoes on plants with lobed leaves, so when I first grew a variety with broad, potato leaf foliage, I thought I had sown eggplant instead of ‘Prudens Purple’. Since then I have grown ‘Stupice’, ’German Pink’ and other potato leaf varieties. I decided to find out why these unusual tomatoes often feature outstanding flavor – here’s what I discovered.

Potato leaf vs tomato leaf tomato seedlings
The seedling at the bottom has the potato leaf type, while the one at the top has the regular leaf type

Why Do Some Tomatoes Have Potato Leaves?

Most tomatoes have what are called wild or regular leaves, comprised of seven leaflets attached to a central vein. Genetically, this is the dominant leaf shape for the Solanum lycopersicum species, but there are many variations that have resulted from selection by humans, and from spontaneous mutations. The most common of these is the potato leaf type, in which the leaves are fused into larger, broader leaves.

Nobody knows exactly where the potato leaf type originated, but it is believed to be an accidental cross that paired two recessive genes. It probably occurred in Europe, because many potato leaf varieties originated in Russia, the Czech Republic, Germany, and Poland. Potato leaf tomato varieties were well known worldwide by the early 1900s, when tomato breeding caught on among backyard growers in Europe and North America. Nowadays, from fast-maturing determinates to late-bearing strains, there are potato leaf varieties to fit any climate.

Brandywine tomato
‘German Pink’ is a popular late-maturing potato leaf tomato

Potato Leaf Tomatoes Really Are Sweeter

Potato leaf varieties are often recommended for one reason, which is flavor. Do potato leaf tomatoes really taste better, or do all heirlooms taste better, or is this something we like to believe?

These are good questions, with a surprising answer. In 2019, a team of researchers at the University of California studied 18 potato-leaf varieties, which really did have higher levels of soluble sugars compared to varieties with regular leaves. Of the varieties included in the study, the brix ratings were especially high for early maturing ‘Bloody Butcher’, ‘Glacier’, and’ Stupice’, and for later ripening ’Brandywine’ and ‘Pruden’s Purple’. But why? After breaking down the details, the team found that potato leaf varieties channel more energy to fruits, while regular leaf tomatoes are inclined to send resources toward growing more leaves and branches. In other words, the same genetic glitch that led to the potato leaf type is linked to the production of sweet, flavorful fruit, compliments of altered plant physiology.

Potato leaf tomato seedling
The genetic glitch that results in potato leaf shape in tomatoes also contributes to better flavor

Potato Leaf Tomato Varieties to Try

You don’t need a warm climate to try potato leaf tomatoes, because several cold tolerant, early maturing potato leaf tomato varieties were developed in the short summer climates of northern Europe. The ‘Siberia’, ‘Black Sea Man’, and ‘Japanese Black Trifele’ varieties came from Russia. ‘Stupice’ was bred in the 1940s at a small farm near Prague, while ‘Glacier’ is an heirloom variety from Sweden. These and other early varieties listed below produce ripe tomatoes less than 70 days after transplanting. Fruit size and shape varies with variety, but most are smallish, red-fruited cluster tomatoes. At my house, ‘Stupice’ is our favorite tomato for eating out of hand with a pinch of salt.

Among later maturing potato leaf varieties, large pink beefsteaks like ‘Brandywine’ and ‘German Pink’ are well represented, and they often score high in taste tests. ‘Burwood’s Prize’ has legions of fans in Australia, and gardeners plagued by birds and squirrels like ‘Green Giant’ because the ripe fruits often escape animal damage. Potato leaf tomatoes readily cross with each other, and with regular tomatoes, so varieties can change unexpectedly, and new varieties are constantly being created. Below you can find a list of some of the most widely available potato leaf tomato varieties, sorted by maturation times.

Potato leaf tomato Stupice
‘Stupice’ and other early maturing potato leaf varieties often tolerate cooler weather

Popular Potato Leaf Tomato Varieties

Early Maturing (55-65 days from transplanting)

Most of these varieties bear clusters of small red tomatoes. The determinate varieties produce heavy crops of tasty tomatoes all at once, require minimal support, and can be grown in containers, while indeterminate varieties produce over a longer period and the plants need staking.

    • Bloody Butcher (indeterminate)
    • Glacier (determinate)
    • Matina (indeterminate)
    • Siberia (determinate)
    • Stupice (indeterminate)

Mid-season (75 days from transplanting)

Fruit size, shape and colour get more interesting with these larger cluster tomatoes. Despite the promise of black or purple colour, these varieties are mostly mahogany red with green shoulders.

    • Black Sea Man (determinate)
    • Burwood’s Prize (indeterminate)
    • Japanese Black Trifele (indeterminate)
    • Pruden’s Purple (indeterminate)

Late Season (80+ days from transplanting)

These full-season varieties produce large, beefsteak type slicing tomatoes, often with pink-red flesh. They are a tomato taster’s delight.

    • Brandywine (indeterminate)
    • German Pink (indeterminate)
    • Green Giant (indeterminate)
    • Lillian’s Yellow (indeterminate)
    • Mariana’s Peace (indeterminate)
    • Soldaki (indeterminate)
    • Valena Pink (indeterminate)

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