Turner’s Hybrid or Mikado: The Best of the Victorian Tomatoes
Treasures from our agricultural past, Turner’s Hybrid, aka Mikado, tomatoes have a unique history and impact on the rest of their family.
In 1886, a small tomato war erupted between two of the most aggressive seed companies in the United States: W. Atlee Burpee of Philadelphia and Peter Henderson of New York. The “war,” if we want to call it that, consisted of two vigorous and competing advertising campaigns to market a new tomato called Turner’s Hybrid or Mikado. Burpee favored the name Turner’s Hybrid (although Mikado clearly appears in the firm’s advertising), while Henderson favored Mikado.
Turner’s Hybrid referred to the Iowa source of the original seed and presumed creator (whose biography remains murky), while Mikado borrowed its name from the then wildly popular Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera of the same name, which opened in London on March 14, 1885. It is obvious that Peter Henderson wanted to cash in on the Mikado craze just then sweeping the country. And if history is to be any judge, the case for Mikado has won out because in Europe mikadofolium is now accepted botanical nomenclature for describing all tomatoes with potato-like leaves.
That Potato Leaf
The potato-like leaf is one of the original distinguishing features of Turner’s Hybrid, and this trait has been passed down to later tomatoes which derive from it. Both Burpee and Henderson made a point to mention the unique leaves as though this were the first time American growers had seen such a thing.
The truth of the matter is that the 1876 catalog of New York seedsman Robert J. Reeves advertised a dwarf foreign variety (country of origin not mentioned) for a Broad Leaf Tomato with an “entirely new and distinct brilliant red” color. That tomato possessed both the potato-like leaves and the crimson-raspberry color of the original Turner’s Hybrid or Mikado. There is certainly not much argument over what constitutes a potato-leaf tomato even though they are often incorrectly styled as “German” (old potato-leaf landraces can be found in many parts of Central America and Mexico, Grimpant du Mexique for example).
The real issue is in the highly idiosyncratic way in which the tomato colors are classified, mainly because English is devoid of the precise terms for the unusual shades associated with Turner’s Hybrid and its descendants. Peter Henderson described the color in his original 1886 catalog as “purplish red like Acme.” Burpee chose “brilliant red” but admitted that due to the instability of the hybrid cross, other colors also emerge. What we know for certain is that the tomato was not so-called “tomato red.”
This tallies with much more reliable and even-handed reports about the tomato coming from England where in the October 18, 1890 issue of The Garden a well-known grower first reported the “two forms” of Turner’s Hybrid (under the preferred name Mikado). I have reported in an earlier issue of Heirloom Gardener that Brandywine emerged from this genetic mix, and further research has confirmed this to the extent that most seedsmen in the United States refused to recognize Brandywine as a distinct or superior variety, but rather little more than a selection of Turner’s Hybrid—one reason it is rarely listed in any seed catalogs other than Johnson & Stokes who claimed Brandywine’s introduction.
The true character of the original Turner’s Hybrid or Mikado tomato is not difficult to determine because this heirloom variety is not extinct, and survives in the two forms first mentioned by the English in 1890. I acquired the original (potato leaf) form in 1993 while lecturing at the Salem County Historical Society in Salem, N.J. The seed was given to me by a local farmer who had maintained a number of heirlooms that had been grown locally since the late 1800s.
In 1997, while attending a muskrat dinner at the V.F.W. Hall in Salem, another local farmer met up with me and supplied me with the other Turner’s Hybrid, a plant with virtually the same fruit but with “regular” gray-green leaves. It would appear that due to the original instability of the hybrid cross, one strain of Turner’s Hybrid migrated back to a regular leaf and has remained that way ever since. The English report of two types seems to confirm that this happened fairly soon after the variety was released in 1886. Furthermore, when we compare Turner’s Hybrid side-by-side with Sudduth’s Brandywine (as distributed by Seed Saver’s Exchange), it’s easy to see that the two tomatoes are not exactly the same (see photo above).
The skin of Turner’s Hybrid is the same color as the flesh: bright raspberry crimson or to some people “purple-rose.” The tomato is almost seedless due to the density of the flesh, whereas Brandywine contains larger and more regularly spaced seed cells. And while the two tomatoes have similar flesh color, the skin of Brandywine is red or at times almost orange-pink. This changes the way the eye sees the overall color—although difficult to record with a camera. The question begs asking: Does different skin color translate into a new variety? How distinct must a tomato be in order to stand alone as a variety unlike others? I do not propose to answer that question here but one thing is obvious: Brandywine cannot hold its own against either Turner’s Hybrid potato-leaf or regular strain. And while the vines of Turner’s Hybrid are thick, monstrously long and tangled, and thus should be trellised like grapes, fruit production is also copious and lasts well into the fall long after Brandywine has declined.
This resistance to cool nights is perhaps one reason German plant breeders turned their attention to potato-leaf varieties. They used Turner’s Hybrid aka Mikado to create a wide number of small-fruited tomatoes better suited to their climate. Some of these, like Quedlinburger Frühe Liebe (Mikado x Allerste) first released in 1951, are still available through Seed Savers Exchange, and as progeny of the original Turner’s Hybrid, they make excellent garden plants for those parts of the country where cool nights are endemic during the summer.