The Beauty of Ugly Tomatoes – Cracks, Lumps, Colours and more.
The saying goes “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Perhaps when it comes to tomatoes it should be “beauty is in the mouth of the beholder.” That’s because there’s nothing like a garden fresh tomato picked in August or September. Of all the things you can grow yourself, tomatoes have the most pronounced difference in flavour profile compared to what is available at the store. If you don’t believe me, you need a raised bed or in-ground garden to test the theory for yourself.
A homegrown tomato can also look a lot different from what you’re used to – they can be just plain ugly or “molto brutto” – and for those who aren’t familiar with growing and eating them it can raise questions of if something is wrong or if the tomato is even edible. In this article I’ll answer why your tomatoes may not look perfectly round and red, and what it means.
Firstly – and most importantly – are ugly tomatoes ok to eat? The answer is usually yes! Weird looking tomatoes may have an irregular shape, growth demority or odd colouration. These fruits can be unattractive for many reasons. Growing conditions are one, but some heirloom varieties are just naturally different. There are over 10,000 tomato varieties out there, and likely only 4 or 5 common choices at the grocery store. Meaning very few are round and red.
So, what are some visual characteristics of ugly tomatoes, and why do they happen?
Cracking & Spliting
Cracks and splits are common in garden tomatoes and they usually occur radially down the fruit or concentrically around it. These are caused by sudden growth while fully formed fruit is ripening. As the plant absorbs excess water and sends it to the tomatoes, the skin cannot contain it and breaks. Open cracks can lead to rotting, so it is best to eat these tomatoes first and cut away any areas that do not look fresh. This will happen most commonly in heirlooms and large-fruited varieties. To avoid it, harvest ripe fruit before watering or heavy rain.
Fluting or Ribbing
Flutes, ribs, lumps or ridges, are all about the tomato variety. A common feature of heirloom and hybrid tomatoes, fruits with these have a stronger taste and have become more popular for backyard gardeners in the past 10 to 15 years. Smaller, smoother and traditional round tomatoes varieties are milder in flavour. The most extreme example of lumps is the “Reisetomate tomato” which is also called the “Traveller’s tomato”. It looks more like a bunch of cherry tomatoes fused together and got it’s name for the ability to tear pieces off of it without a knife.
This is a growth deformity that is purely cosmetic – but completely edible . Noticeable as brown scars, holes or crevasses it usually occurs at the blossom end (bottom) of the fruit and is most common in beefsteak and other larger varieties. Because of the uneven growth, the fruit may ripen unevenly as well. Thankfully, in most cases it will only affect the first few fruits on the plant. Catfacing is caused by cool weather when flowers and fruit are forming, excessive pruning of the vine or too much nitrogen in the soil. To avoid it, only transplant tomatoes once day and nighttime temperatures stay above 15°C (59°F).
Unusual colour in your tomatoes is most often something to be wowed by, not scared off. There are rare heirloom varieties and hybrids that have dark pigments giving fruits purple, brown and black tones. Many other varieties have yellow or green “zebra” striping. In some cases, tomatoes can ripen unevenly, with some areas red while others stay green. This can be caused by growing conditions or pests. Sunscald and disease can also cause colouration irregularities. If the flesh and skin look firm, it will be edible. But at worst, simply cut off the unappealing areas and eat the rest.
Whether you need help building your garden, planning for what to grow, or want the know-how to care for it, The Young Nonno is here to help. And the next time you pick an ugly tomato, give it a chance. Your mouth might just fall in love!