Growing Indigo Rose Tomatoes
Delicious, Good for You, and Just Plain Cool
You've probably seen purple or black tomatoes before. They're usually neither purple nor black. If you're lucky, they are quite dark, with a purplish-brown hue. If not, they're just plain brown. Indigo Rose tomatoes are different!
Aren't those cool tomatoes?
Indigo Rose tomatoes contain anthocyanins, the same beneficial pigments found in blueberries. The Indigo Rose tomato is the first garden tomato to contain these healthy and striking pigments in its fruit. It's the result of decades of breeding between wild tomatoes, some of which naturally contain anthocyanins, and food crop tomatoes. Unlike other lines of anthocyanin-rich tomatoes, the Indigo Rose also produces high levels of anthocyanins in its foliage, tinting the leaves and even the stems of the plant a dusky, glittering purple.
It's great that these tomatoes are packed with healthy goodness, but in all honesty what drew me to them was the cool color. I'm a sucker for a shiny, eye-catching vegetable. The Indigo Rose tomato delivered! Despite my remarkably poor treatment of this year's garden, my little tomato plant is covered in shiny, almost-black purple tomatoes. Even the foliage has a purple tint to it, and both leaves and fruit have a glittery sheen that's really striking when the sun hits them.
All photographs taken by the author.
How Do You Know When They're Ripe
The Indigo Rose Tomato FAQ
The question I hear most frequently about these tomatoes is, "How do you know when they're ripe?"
The normal color cues are largely absent, as the fruit assumes its purple hue while still very small. The pigments that make this tomato so special are concentrated in the skin as a sort of botanical sunblock. Any part of the tomato that is shaded by leaves will remain green, and will turn red when the tomato is ripe.
In my case, the plant grew pretty spindly due to neglect, and didn't really shade any part of the fruit. In addition, the plant was in a container placed over light-colored river rocks which reflect quite a bit of sunlight, so even the bottoms of the tomatoes get enough sun to turn them purple. I watched for a transition from the glossy, glitter-speckled metallic purple of the unripe tomatoes to a duller purple-black, as in the picture below. When this happens, they're ripe.
The bottom of this ripe tomato got less sun than the rest, and shows a hint of red.
History of the Indigo Rose Tomato
Where Did this Cool Tomato Come From?
The tomato breeding project that produced the beautiful, purple-black Indigo Rose tomato began in the 1960s, when two tomato breeders began crossing edible tomatoes with some of the wild strains that contain anthocyanins. The resulting strains of tomatoes were then interbred by researchers at Oregon State University until the lines were stable and produced tasty fruit with high levels of anthocyanins.
The Indigo Rose is the first of the resulting lines to become available to the home gardener. If you've been disappointed with the fruit borne by other "purple" or "black" tomatoes, you've got to try the Indigo Rose! Ripening tomatoes, when grown in a sunny spot, develop an every-so-slightly purplish black skin with an almost metallic-looking finish, which turns more purple as the tomatoes approach ripeness. Indigo Rose tomatoes are so striking on the vine, this is truly a front-yard-worthy food crop.
The larger tomato in this picture is almost ripe. See how it's lost most of its glittery sheen?
My Experience with Indigo Rose Tomatoes
One Puny Plant
That's right. I'm growing Indigo Rose Tomatoes for the first time this year, and all I've got is one plant that fails in a downright embarrassing fashion to live up to the expectations of its towering tomato cage. So why am I so excited about them?
The short version: that one puny plant is pretty impressive given how hugely I've mistreated it, the tomatoes are really head-turners, and it's got two vegetable-loathing kids eager to try some tomatoes.
This poor Indigo Rose tomato plant took a lot of abuse.
What Did You Do to That Poor Plant?
A Full Confession
The details of the abuse this plant suffered are as follows. First, I bought it as a poor, shrivelled seedling, which I almost never do. I'd heard about this tomato, though, and was eager to try it, and it was too late to start one from seed. I brought it home, set it out in back of my house, and forgot about it for about a week and a half.
By the time I happened to notice it, my Indigo Rose tomato was beyond sad. It was almost entirely brown, and so wilted it looked like the poor thing had fainted. I watered it and waited to see what would happen.
Fruit looks almost metallically shiny.
The plucky little thing put forth new, green growth, so I stuck it in a pot in front of my house. It started to thrive. Then, in early July, my dog, Inigo, developed a mast cell tumor in a very undignified place. Life that month was one prolonged assault on his rear, my wallet, and both of our good cheer. Once more, the Indigo Rose tomato was left unloved and largely unwatered.
About two weeks ago, I noticed that the tomatoes on it were looking pretty great, all things considered, and took a moment to appreciate how hard the plant was trying. I resumed regular watering, and the tomatoes are looking cooler every day. I've only tried one, and it wasn't ripe yet. I knew it wouldn't be, I just had to try.
So, you see, this little plant has been thoroughly stress tested, and passed with flying colors. Unless the fruit turns out to taste bad, which my one unripe taste indicates is unlikely, this plant scores five stars and a larger scale, better cared for place in next year's garden. Updates to follow!
Update October, 2012: They're tasty!
Indigo Rose Tomato Seeds - Next Year, I'll Start Early From Seed
Indigo Rose tomatoes are a stable heirloom line, not a hybrid, so I'll save some seeds from this year's plant. Since I'm dead set on growing more of these gems next year, I'll probably order some seed, too, just in case my saved seeds don't germinate. Much as I love to save seeds, sometimes I'm a bit of a slob about it, and seeds packaged before being thoroughly dried just turn into a dead mess long before planting season arrives.
Indigo Rose tomatoes are a nutritional powerhouse and pretty enough to take center stage in the garden. I'll be growing a lot of them next year, as they're one of the most visually striking vegetables I've encountered and the plants can take a lot of neglect without dying. Next year I'm going to try not to put them through any abuse, but it's good to know they'll still produce if life throws me a curve ball and I skimp on my watering.
How to Grow Indigo Rose Tomatoes
The Right Way. Not the Way I Did It.
The short answer is: You grow Indigo Rose tomatoes just like any other tomato. They like full sun, regular, deep watering, and lots of room. If you're using containers, you'll want to give an Indigo Rose tomato plant at least a 15 gallon container so it has plenty of room for a healthy root system. I like smart pots or homemade containers lined with coconut fiber or landscape cloth, and have had much better results in them than in plastic or terra cotta pots, but the most important thing is just to give the plant's roots plenty of room to grow. Use a good, rich soil mixed with plenty of compost.
If you're growing from seed, you'll want to start your seeds indoors about 6 to 8 weeks before your last frost. Plants can be transplanted outdoors after all danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed. Early May would have been the time to plant here by the California coast, but my poor, mistreated seedling still produced some great tomatoes with a late June planting.
This tiny tomato already shows dusky purple where exposed to the sun.
More About Indigo Rose Tomatoes - Learn What Gardeners are Saying About This Pretty Black Tomato
For a relatively new variety, the Indigo Rose tomato already has quite a following. Here's what gardeners and agriculturalists around the web are saying about this striking and tasty tomato.
- 'Indigo Rose' Tomato: Another Blue Garden Tomato
Mr. Brown Thumb details his experience growing Indigo Rose tomatoes. Lots of great pictures!
- Purple tomato debuts as 'Indigo Rose'
Advice for Indigo Rose growers from Oregon State University, where the generations of breeding that produced this variety were completed.
- Tomato Report: Indigo Rose
Mr. Homegrown reports on his first taste of an Indigo Rose tomato.
- Farmers Markets: Indigo Rose tomato, a dark beauty
Indigo Rose tomatoes are starting to appear at farmers markets and coops, where their visual appeal makes them a popular curiosity.
- The Indigo Rose Tomato
Esther Sung's brief piece on the Indigo Rose tomato at epicurious.com includes a rather charming haiku celebrating this unique little fruit.
Will you be trying Indigo Rose tomatoes in your own garden? Have you already grown some? If so, did you take better care of yours than I did of mine? Perhaps you've grown another purple or black tomato you loved? I'd love to hear your thoughts! I've only grown them once, though I'm looking forward to round two this year. That being said, please feel free to post any questions you have. I'll do my best to answer, or to point you to someone who can.