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Aunt Lou’s Underground Railroad Tomato

Aunt Lou’s Underground Railroad Tomato

9/17/2019

At some point in the mid-19th century, this heirloom tomato was carried through the Underground Railroad by an unnamed black man as he crossed to freedom in Ripley, Ohio, from Kentucky. Ripley is home to Rankin House, a well-known stop on the Underground Railroad and now a museum. He grew these tomatoes there and later shared seeds with a woman named Lou, who later shared seeds with her great nephew Francis Parker.

Sixty years later, Francis, who lives in Sardinia, Ohio, shared seeds with Wilfred Ellis, owner of Ellis’ Feed Mill. Francis died in 2010, but he approved the addition of Underground Railroad to the name. Wilfred shared them with Susan Barber and Gary Millwood of Kentucky. Seeds were first offered in the Seed Savers 2010 Yearbook by Maria Stenger, Kentucky, who received seeds from Gary Millwood.

'Aunt Lou's Underground Railroad' is a tomato variety in the Solanum genus with a scientific name of Solanum lycopersicum. Indeterminate, regular leaf plants produce 4-12 oz., dark pink, tangy, and juicy tomatoes. The plants produce sparse foliage and so they may be easily damaged by late blight. The fruits have a slightly flattened top and contain a lot of seeds. This variety takes 75-85 days to mature and the robust plants easily reach a height of over 5 feet.

In 2014, Master Gardener Annie Owen, working at Carnton Plantation in Franklin, TN, grafted this tomato scion with an Estamino root stock. That created a much larger fruit, two to three times in size. All heirloom crops that are grown at Carnton Plantation are kept in the tradition of what was there during the Civil War timeframe.

This tomato was unique in its taste and size, and I kept seeds, growing it for my garden in 2015. A similar tomato was produced the same as the 2014 grafted version. I have been growing it since then as one of my favorites. The grafted version, along with the root plant, has been grown in the Period Slave Garden at the Carnton Plantation every year since 2014. The grafted version is triple in size as the root version.

‘Aunt Lou’s Underground Railroad’ tomato is available in some seed catalogues and seed sharing circles, but it remains underappreciated and may be difficult to find for sale. I hope you’ll try it in your own garden.

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