Limbaugh’s Legacy: My Favorite Heirloom Tomato, ‘Potato Top’By Jill M. Nicolaus (critterologist)
February 19, 2009
Several years ago, a friend of mine shared seeds for a tomato she called "Pennsylvania Pink." It's become my favorite tomato for both flavor and production--a big, pink beefsteak, bursting with sweet fruity flavor. Eventually, I discovered both its real name, ‘Potato Top', and its proud history as a Pennsylvania heirloom, the legacy of Pittsburgher Fred Limbaugh.
Fred Limbaugh's family has been growing these beautiful tomatoes in the Pittsburgh area for four generations. His grandfather grew hundreds of seedlings each spring and handed them out to grace the gardens of Port Authority workers. Fred continued this tradition, growing ‘Potato Top' tomato seedlings in his basement and hardening them off in back yard coldframes. Although he himself didn't eat tomatoes, Fred loved growing them to share with others.
When his knees started getting creaky, Fred recruited help. A local nursery started growing plants when demand became greater than his friends and family could supply. His daughter is also keeping the strain going. Fred Limbaugh's death in January of 2008 was a great loss. Both the man and his tomatoes will be missed, and I hope that others will continue his tradition of generosity, spreading ‘Potato Top' tomatoes to gardens far and wide.
My favorite tomatoes for flavor are pink beefsteaks, and ‘Potato Top' fits that description. In general, pink tomatoes seem to have a sweeter, more fruity flavor than most red varieties. Taste is very subjective, and tomatoes can also vary in flavor from year to year and from region to region. Still, ‘Potato Top' seems to get great reviews from people across the country, and its popularity is growing among heirloom tomato aficionados.
"Pink" tomatoes aren't really any different than red ones when you slice into them. The color difference lies in the skin of the tomato. If you peel back a bit of skin on a regular red tomato, you'll see that it has a yellow tint. A pink tomato has clear skin. See the photo to the right for a red and pink tomato skin color comparison.
‘Potato Top' gets its curious name from its foliage. Like many pink tomatoes, it has "potato leafed" (PL) foliage rather than "regular leafed" (RL) foliage. The larger, lobed leaves really do look like the leaves growing on top of a potato plant. The abundant foliage of potato leafed plants may help protect fruits from sun scald.
With fruit production starting about 80 days after seedlings are transplanted to the garden, ‘Potato Top' is a mid to late season tomato. It's an indeterminate plant, which means the plant will continue to grow larger and produce fruit until frost.
Pittsburgh newspaper columnist Doug Oster has been growing ‘Potato Top' since the year 2000, spreading its fame and sharing its seeds. Every spring, he publishes a column about Fred Limbaugh's tomato, "the best tomato in Pennsylvania," and offers to send seeds for SASE. In return, he asks people to send back seeds harvested from the first ripe tomatoes of their ‘Potato Top' plants. With help from a local garden club, he also gives away thousands of seed packets at an annual Pittsburgh garden show. Doug knew ‘Potato Top' was being planted in more Pittsburgh area gardens each year, but he's been surprised by its growing popularity coast to coast and around the world.
The history of this heirloom makes it special, and its widespread success makes it worth trying in any tomato patch! If you'd like to grow out a few plants of your own next year, check the threads below this article for a seed offer from me. If my supply has run out, ask around in the Tomato or Seed Trading Forums. I think my favorite tomato will become more popular each year, and the more people who grow it, the easier it will be to find seeds the following year.
Let's spread the fame of ‘Potato Top' from coast to coast and beyond, keeping Limbaugh's Legacy growing!
Move your mouse over the images and links in this article for additional information.
Photos of tomato plants and fruit by Jill M. Nicolaus.
Thank you, Doug!
I learned about the history of ‘Potato Top' from Doug Oster's gardening column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Thanks to his annual seed offer, this wonderful tomato found its way to my garden. Doug Oster also kindly supplied the photo of Fred Limbaugh with his beloved tomato seedlings.
Thanks are also due to the DG sleuths who helped me find the identity and history of my favorite tomato!
For a great tutorial on saving tomato seeds, see this article by our own Dave Whitinger.
Doug has asked that anybody with extra seeds to share please contact him. He gets more requests each year and hates to think there might not be enough seeds to go around.
Please send extra ‘Potato Top' seeds to:
The Backyard Gardener
34 Bldv. of the Allies
Pittsburgh, Pa 15222