Tomato ‘Big Rainbow’

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Heritage Tomato ‘Big Rainbow’—multicolor skin and a light red streak inside

For beauty on the plate, few Tomatoes can surpass the heritage variety ‘Big Rainbow’. Sometimes it looks mostly yellow and sometimes it has green shoulders with a waistcoat of yellow and orange—when ripe, streaks of red appear toward the blossom end. Try not to judge this beefsteak by its flat, lumpy exterior. Slicing into it reveals wisps and whorls of red and orange streaked through the yellow meat—ah, the prize inside. ‘Big Rainbow’ is a classic eating Tomato: juicy and sweet with fruity overtones and a low-acid bite.

We like to call this a New American Heritage because it came out of Minnesota during the 1980s, grown by the families in and around Polk County. One woman, Dorothy Beiswenger, had the foresight to register it with Seed Savers Exchange and blessed its name. ‘Big Rainbow’s’ history is unclear as far as heritage goes; no one knows much about its early days, its ethnic background, or its parents. What we do know is that it became a hit.

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A red streak on the bottom signals ripeness


As with all heritage Tomatoes, be prepared to enjoy its charms. Long vines easily surpass seven feet, so this variety will overflow the standard Tomato cage. 'Big Rainbow' is a heavy producer in more ways than one—these Tomatoes are heavy! It’s common to see one- and two-pounders (with reports of three-pounders), so using tie supports avoids marring or drops. Give it plenty of space to allow good air circulation.

We also like to strip leaves about a foot above the soil of mature plants to keep their knees clean, and mulch to protect the roots and discourage pests. For families with children, ‘Big Rainbow’ teaches patience—this is a late season variety, taking 85 to 95 days to ripen. To intensify the flavor, enthusiasts back the water off when the Tomatoes start to ripen on the vine. Just as dense Tomato paste tastes stronger than the juice, watering moderately concentrates the tasty flavors inside the fruit.

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Sweet, low-acid, and fruity—as close to eating a peach as a Tomato can get


There are many types of Tomatoes—sauce, salad, sandwich, slicer—but the most demanding kind is the eating Tomato. This label is reserved only for those few cultivars that can be served brazenly front and center: sliced thick and dabbed with mayonnaise and a little fresh-ground pepper, or layered with fresh mozzarella and topped with basil leaves and a drizzle of olive oil—always al fresco and never cooked. Of course, some prefer to go old school and eat ‘Big Rainbow’ like an apple, dipping it in sea salt between bites. Among New York chefs the cultivar is known to make “a damn good Bloody Mary.”

Low-acid is only part of the ‘Big Rainbow’ flavor story. Acids and sugars are well-balanced with additional fruity notes thrown in for a full, rich taste you don’t get from commercial varieties. Some say it’s as close to eating a peach as a Tomato can get. Like snow angels and dandelion fluff, this heirloom Tomato will not keep for long—so if you pick it when it’s ripe, eat it within a few days. Fruits picked green will sun-ripen with the same flavor and they will last longer.

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Saved out of Northern Minnesota in 1983, it became widely available in the 90s


We did not realize it at the time, but ‘Big Rainbow’ was part of the beginning of today’s ornamental edible movement. Though it wasn’t used to decorate the vegetable garden back then it was undeniably whimsical on the dinner plate, a sight you didn’t expect to see. It became—and still is—an intriguing gateway into that larger, deeper gene pool of open-pollinated cultivars.

For garden centers that want to entice more customers we stock quite a few of these interesting Tomatoes: ‘Black Krim’; ‘Brandywine’; ‘Cherokee Purple’; ‘Chocolate Cherry’; ‘Jubilee’; ‘Marglobe’; ‘Mortgage Lifter’; ‘Mr. Stripey’; ‘Old German’; ‘Ponderosa Pink’; ‘San Marzano’, and even the venerable ‘Rutgers’. All of these cultivars make fine additions to a heritage Tomato program.

A network of volunteers has sprung up to support these open-pollinated cultivars. ‘Big Rainbow’ is just one of thousands of examples saved and promoted by the Seed Savers Exchange. This group has done a wonderful job of harnessing and organizing the diversity found in our backyard gardens. They rescue cultivars once treasured by our grandfathers that we would have otherwise lost—both flower and vegetable. To us, they still have a place in our gardens and on our dinner plates. If you want to drop down the rabbit hole of history and horticulture, Seed Savers is a good place to begin the journey.

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A thick meaty core with a signature red streak makes it a centerpiece on the plate

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