Old-fashioned varieties can have quirky looks—and histories to match
In the 1940s, M.C. Byles, a West Virginia mechanic known as Radiator Charlie, bred tomatoes that weighed 2 to 4 pounds. He then sold enough $1 seedlings to pay off his $6,000 mortgage. The Radiator Charlie's 'Mortgage Lifter' tomato is prized not only for its size but also for its rich, meaty flavor.
Most pea vines reach for the sky, but 'Tom Thumb,' introduced in 1854, is a cold-tolerant shelling pea that grows just 12 inches high and produces sweet, full-size pods. It was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in the garden of a Missouri woman who had been growing it since the 1920s.
Speckled with varying shades of red, like a slaughterhouse apron, it's easy to see how this corn got the name 'Bloody Butcher.' The earthy kernels are believed to be a mix of white and red corn varieties that Virginia colonists crossed in the early 1800s.
The popular purple-streaked 'Rattlesnake Bean' pod resembles the reptile's markings (they disappear when cooked). Eat pods young for a sweeter flavor, or let beans dry for simmering stews.
The 'Black Krim' tomato is a dark-red-to-black beefsteak variety with a smoky, slightly salty taste. It's thought that soldiers returning from the Crimean War brought the seeds home in the 1850s. This heat-tolerant variety regained popularity in the 1990s.