The Green Shoulders of Flavorful Tomatoes

July 31, 2012 in Foodland, Health Claims, Mediterranean by Joyce Bunderson

National Public Radio (NPR) published an article How The Taste Of Tomatoes Went Bad (And Kept On Going), based upon their radio show, All Things Considered. If you’re fairly young, you are probably perplexed with all the chat about how tomatoes used to taste. But even if you’re fairly young, you may have had an opportunity to taste a real tomato, and then you’re spoiled for the modern tomato. Tomatoes are one crop that you can easily grow, even if only in a balcony planter box.  It is worth the effort. Without doubt store tomatoes and homegrown tomatoes don’t seem to taste like the same species. But now we’ve discovered that it’s not only vine ripening the tomato that contributes to the difference between the modern supermarket tomato and homegrown tomatoes. It’s something deeper that hasn’t been understood until recently.

Last July, I wrote Mediterranean Summer Reading, and within that article cited Barry EstaBrook’s book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. After reading that book, I assumed that the taste was primarily due to the nutrient-poor, sandy soil that the Florida tomatoes are grown in and the premature picking of the hard green orbs. But the NPR article expanded my understanding.

It seems as though a genetic mutation that offered the pretty, perfect, and red tomato, was bonanza to growers and grocery stores; however, it robbed the tomato’s taste. Compared with the old fashioned tomatoes, with green tops and weird shapes and non-uniform sizes, the new tomatoes were very similar in size and shape. They pack into boxes well. They can be picked when they are green; they don’t bruise and spoil as easily in transport, and later, with the help of a little gas, they turn red all over.

The heirloom tomatoes, commonly grown a century or more ago, have unusual colors, from orange to purple and have a vivid taste. The last two years, I have grown Black Krim tomatoes from seeds. I must say that they grow very easily from seeds; I started them inside my conservatory this year and last year inside my tool room. Last year, I had so many tomatoes that both a local food program and my neighbors were happy that I planted way too many. I’ve done that again. After the first harvest, I thought, they have been named for the dark color; but today I learned that it was for the Black Sea and the Crimean Peninsula of the Ukraine where they began (as far as we know).

Because heirloom tomatoes are softer, are different shapes and sizes, they don’t ship so well. Also the part of the tomato near the stem, called the shoulder of the fruit – stays green longer. Last year, when I grew my first heirloom tomatoes, I thought, “These are ugly tomatoes and they seem to have a hard time getting ripe.” Impatient me … I cut one open even though it was still a little green on the shoulder, and to my great amazement and delight – the taste was phenomenal! It was juicy and meaty and not like those sturdy but mealy cardboard-flavored store fruits sold as tomatoes.

On June 28, 2012, Science published an article explaining that, “a massive advance in our understanding of tomato fruit development and ripening” has been discovered in Potsdam, Germany. They actually discovered the exact gene (SIGLK2), which increases the formation of chloroplasts in wild and heirloom tomatoes. That gene is really important because the chloroplasts use chlorophyll to capture sunlight and turn carbon dioxide and water into sugars. And another bonus, even though the modern red tomatoes have lycopene, the old-fashioned tomatoes had even more. So tomatoes with the old fashioned gene are not only yummier, but also potentially healthier for us too.

The researchers are not finished with their studies and believe that in addition to the mutated gene of modern tomatoes, that plucking the tomatoes before they are ripe is also a factor. Essentially, there may be more than one reason those supermarket tomatoes pale in comparison to the tasty homegrown tomatoes.

It’s funny that when the green shoulders were selected out; we lost our sweet tasty tomatoes. It has been tracked to sometime before 1930. In America, a tomato grower noticed a plant that produced a tomato that turned red from stem to tip in a uniform manner – no more bothersome green shoulders. Plant breeders called it “uniform ripening” trait; and the agricultural experiment station in Fargo, N.D. released, All Red, a new tomato variety containing the mutation.

Ann Powell, a researcher at the University of California, Davis, says it spread through the entire tomato industry. She is one of the scientists who now has discovered the genetic change responsible for “uniform ripening” – and, of course, the loss of the tasty tomato.

When growing our own is out of season, and armed with this knowledge, those of us who live where tomatoes don’t grow much of the year will now have a different reaction to tomatoes in the market. When entering the market we might now say, “Look at the ugly green-topped tomato; it must be good!” Those of us ‘in the know’ will realize that it will be a variety that has brought back the old gene in some form. We’ll probably have to pay a little more, until the demand encourages the growers to grow more with the old-fashioned gene doing its work with Mother Nature, and making tasty tomatoes.  This California native, who grew up eating tomatoes most of the year, welcomes the new (old) green shoulders.  When my Black Krim tomatoes get ripe, I’ll try to remember to send you some pics from my garden. Best wishes finding some ‘green shoulders’ in you local farmer’s market or your backyard.

This planter box is not Black Krim; but see the dark green shoulders?

These little cherry tomatoes are bright yellow when ripe - also delicious.

I do not know the name of this tomato, but it does have green shoulders even when ripe - had it for dinner tonight.


Two different varieties in this box - had one for dinner tonight - very nice with a bit of fresh dill.

More are hiding and will one day be at least partially red.

Both of these planter boxes are exclusively Black Krim grown from seed.

The dill growing in the box on the right is in with bell peppers. Nice barbecued.

See the one pepper hiding under a leaf - it was barbecued in a metal basket tonight.

We have high hopes for these young Black Krim tomatoes.

This Petite Negra lives inside during the Mountain West winters. Can you see the figs?

This bougainvillea, along with the vegetables and figs, helps me remember my native California.