Paul robeson tomato plant

Paul Robeson History: What Are Paul Robeson Tomatoes

Paul Robeson is a tomato cult classic. Loved by seed savers and tomato enthusiasts both for its distinct flavor and for its fascinating namesake, it is a real cut above the rest. Keep reading to learn more about growing Paul Robeson tomatoes and Paul Robeson tomato care.

Paul Robeson History

What are Paul Robeson tomatoes? First, we need to explore a more important question: Who was Paul Robeson? Born in 1898, Robeson was a spectacular Renaissance man. He was a lawyer, athlete, actor, singer, orator, and polyglot. He was also African American, and frustrated with the racism that perpetually held him back.

He was drawn to Communism for its claims of equality and became very popular in the USSR. Unfortunately, this was during the height of the Red Scare and McCarthyism, and Robeson was blacklisted by Hollywood and harassed by the FBI for being a Soviet sympathizer.

He died in poverty and obscurity in 1976. Having a tomato named after you is hardly a fair trade for a life of promise lost to injustice, but it’s something.

Paul Robeson Tomato Care

Growing Paul Robeson tomatoes is relatively easy and very rewarding. Paul Robeson tomato plants are indeterminate, which means they are long and vining rather than compact and bushy like many more popular tomato plants. They need to be staked or tied to a trellis.

They like full sun and fertile, well-drained soil. The fruits are dark red in color and have a very distinct, almost smoky flavor to them. They are juicy but firm flattened globes that tend to reach 3 to 4 inches (7.5-10 cm.) in diameter and 7 to 10 ounces (200-300 g.) in weight. This makes them ideal as slicing tomatoes, but they are also excellent eaten straight off the vine.

Gardeners who grow these tomatoes swear by them, often proclaiming them to be the best tomatoes they’ve ever had.

Your Perfect Tomato

How can I grow the sweetest, most flavorful tomatoes?
A tomato’s sugar content is largely a matter of its genetic makeup. Some varieties, like the cherry types, are extremely sweet. Others, including black varieties such as ‘Black Krim’, ‘Cherokee Purple’, and ‘Paul Robeson’, naturally have a robust, intense flavor. But any tomato grown in full sun – for at least eight hours a day – is more flavorful than one from a plant in part shade.

Can I plant tomatoes in the same place every year?
Try to avoid that; diseases build up in the soil and spoil future crops. Grow tomatoes in the same bed only every third or fourth year. If you have just one sunny spot for growing tomatoes, plant in large containers, and change the soil every year.

What are the best varieties for beginners?
All are easy to grow if they’re adapted to your region. In climates with a short or cool summer (at high altitudes and along the coast, for example), long-season beefsteak types won’t ripen well, but shorter-season varieties will. Cherry (salad) tomatoes are almost foolproof there and elsewhere in the West; our favorites include ‘Black Cherry’, ‘Green Grape’, ‘Isis Candy’, ‘Sun Gold’, and ‘SunSugar’. For a medium-size slicer, ‘Early Girl’ also produces well nearly everywhere.

Do heirlooms taste better?
Often, but not always. Tomato tasting is not unlike wine tasting – different flavors appeal to different palates, and few crops offer a greater range of flavors than heirloom tomatoes.

What types are best for growing in containers Do potted tomatoes need special care?
The best tomatoes for growing in pots are cherry tomatoes. They do well in containers at least 16 inches deep and wide, and need watering and feeding more often than tomatoes growing in the ground. The bigger the container, the less frequently you’ll have to water in hot weather, and the more room roots have to run. A half whiskey or wine barrel is perfect.

What’s the difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes, and why should I care which type I grow?
Determinate tomatoes such as ‘Celebrity’, ‘Roma’, and ‘Sprite’ set all their fruit over a relatively short period, so many are great for canning and freezing. They don’t grow much after flowering starts and tend to be more compact – better for small spaces and pots. Indeterminate tomatoes flower and fruit over a long season, and plants keep growing larger until cool weather shuts them down. They need room to sprawl and most likely will require sturdy stakes.

Which tomatoes are for which purposes?
Big tomatoes make good slicers; cherry tomatoes are usually used in salads; tomatoes that are good for paste have less water and more pectin, resulting in a smoother paste, and they can also be eaten fresh. Canning tomatoes need high acid to help prevent botulism.

Why are some tomato varieties tagged “VFFNTA”?
Those have been bred to resist verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt, nematodes, tobacco mosaic virus, and alternaria leaf spot (early blight) – all diseases or pests that can be devastating in other plants.

Do tomatoes need pollination?
Tomatoes pollinate themselves when wind or insects shake the flowers (the latter is called buzz pollination). If you’re growing tomatoes in a greenhouse, give flowering stems a shake whenever you walk past to increase fruit set.

How long does it take from planting to fruit?
Usually about three months, but sometimes faster with short-season varieties. Whatever the variety, fruit always takes longer to ripen (as much as 50 percent longer) in cool-summer climates.

Can tomatoes self-sow?
Definitely. But remember that only heirloom or other open-pollinated tomatoes produce offspring that are like the parents. Hybrids do not.

Should you prune tomatoes?
In cool-summer climates, where tomatoes often don’t get enough heat for the fruit to ripen, you can prune plants to let the sun in. Pinch out suckers that sprout from the crotches between the main stems and side branches. On plants trained to stakes, keep one vertical leader. For caged plants, train three or four vertical leaders along the sides of the cage and thin out congested growth to improve air circulation.In warm-summer climates, tomatoes should be pruned only minimally to prevent sunburned fruit. Be sure to keep enough leaves to shade the fruit.

When is it time to pick?
Pick after fruit colors fully. In fall, when night temperatures drop below 55°, pick any tomatoes with some color and ripen them indoors on a windowsill (dark green fruit never ripens).


In most of the West, set out seedlings in spring after danger of frost has passed. (In the low desert, plant after Labor Day ? spring planting doesn’t work there because tomatoes won’t set fruit above about 90?.) Choose a spot with full sun (at least eight hours a day is best), fertilize at planting and again in about two weeks, water sparingly but don’t let plants wilt, and you’ll get plenty of fruit two or three months later.

Beyond these basics, it always helps to dig 3 or 4 inches of compost into the top foot of soil before planting. The extra organic matter holds air, water, and nutrients better than most unamended soils, which promotes strong growth.

Tomato seedlings can be planted extra-deep to encourage stronger root growth. Bury plants so that the main stem is 2 or 3 inches belowground, and it will develop additional roots. Stake plants to keep ripening tomatoes off the ground, where they’re prone to rot. We recommend using one of these two .

All the fussing done by tomato aficionado – pruning, elaborate tying and trellising, spraying with hormones – is designed to get sweeter or more fruit, extend the season, or deal with regional cultural challenges. You may eventually experiment with these things, but only after you’ve learned to love the scent of tomato leaves on your fingers and sampled a few different homegrown varieties.



Thomas J. Story Brandywine tomato seedlings await their turn in the garden. See how to grow the perfect tomato.

Nurseries are filled with seedlings in May. Plant them as soon as danger of frost has passed. You can also get mail-order seedlings from ; 310/534-8611, ; 707/766-9303, or ; 800/503-9624. For California, many types must be shipped prior to May 8, depending on the weather).


May is late to start tomatoes from seed, but if you have a long growing season, a warm spot in the garden (against a south-facing wall, for example), and act early in the month, you can still get a crop.

Here are some great Western seed sources:

(web orders only)
(web orders only)
; 800/422-3985
(web orders only)
; 888/762-7333
; 888/478-7333


Thomas J. Story

Homegrown tomatoes are infinitely more flavorful than anything you can buy. You’ve peppered us with questions — here’s how to get your most luscious crop ever

We talked to tomato growers around the West to narrow down the best varieties. ‘Sun Gold’ cherry and ‘Early Girl’ slicer are two that were top picks for flavor and ease of growing in every region. And while the following lists are by no means exhaustive, they represent the tastiest varieties that are proven performers in the five regions of the West that Sunset covers.


‘Gardener’s Delight’
‘Green Grape’
‘Sweet Million’

‘Big Beef’


‘Black Cherry’
‘Green Grape’
‘Snow White’
‘Sweet 100’

‘Better Boy’
‘Green Zebra’
‘Jaune Flamm?’
‘Kellogg’s Breakfast’


‘Black Plum’
‘Dr. Carolyn’
‘Green Grape’
‘Isis Candy’

‘Green Zebra’
‘Julia Child’
‘Lemon Boy’


‘Red Cherry’
‘Small Fry’

‘Roma’ (paste)


‘Sweet 100’
‘Sweet William’

‘Better Boy’
‘Big Beef’
‘Mountain Pride’


Below are several heirlooms recommended by Gary Ibsen, tomato book author and founder of the in Carmel Valley, California.

Best determinate tomatoes for containers

‘Belii Naliv’: red
‘Bush Beefsteak’: red
‘Fargo’: yellow pear
‘Principe Borghese’: red
‘Roughwood Golden Plum’ (semi-determinate): orange

Best indeterminate tomato for containers

‘Amish Red’

Best-tasting cherry tomatoes

‘Black Cherry’: purple
‘Blondkopfchen’: yellow
‘Camp Joy’: red
‘Dr. Carolyn’: cream yellow
‘Grandpa’s Minnesota’: red
‘Hawaiian Currant’: red
‘Isis Candy’: yellow with red

Great varieties for desert gardens

‘Costoluto Genovese’: red
‘Indian Moon’: yellow-orange
‘Marvel Stripe’: bicolored yellow and red
‘Mexico’: red
‘Pantano Romanesco’: red
‘Super Sioux’: red
‘Texas Star’: yellow

Next: More warm-season crops

Tomato, Paul Robeson (Organic)

Solanum lycopersicum. Maroon/Brown. 75-80 days. Indet.

Gorgeous color of deep red blended with chocolate-black that is rightly associated with delicious flavor. This category of tomato (which includes Sarah Black, Mavritanskite, Lila Sari, Sokolades and many others) is typically so rich, sweet and almost smoky that one would be justified in giving up all other tomatoes. We won’t go that far, but it is very nice to have tomatoes that get this tasty in our cool Pacific Northwest climate. Paul Robeson is our maroon/brown tomato of choice for market farm production because it rarely cracks, is blemish free, and is high yielding of 6-12 oz fruit even in less than optimal conditions. Originating in Russia and named in honor of the great social activist, opera singer, star athlete, and actor, Paul Robeson. Among his many accomplishments, he was the first black actor known to play Othello in the US. Arguably one of the most important and forgotten figures of the mid-1900s and early civil rights movement. He was a political activist inspired by the egalitarian anti-racism ethics of Marxism and had strong communist sympathies. This resulted in his being blacklisted from American establishment culture and in 1950, his passport was revoked due to his work with the anti-imperialism movement. We hope to do our part to help re-popularize his story.


I was astonished by this tomato. I had heard many great stories of its sublime rich taste but adjectives leave a lot to be desired in trying to describe Paul Robeson. It is definitely one the top 5 best tasting tomatoes I have ever tasted! And I have grown out over 130 kinds of heirloom tomatoes and tasted countless more. There is nearly a cult foodie following for this Russian rarity. Seeds were first made available by Marina Danilenko, a Moscow seedswoman. Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was one of the first black opera singers. He starred in “King Solomon’s Mine” in 1937. He was not only a renowned and charismatic operatic singer, but at a time in history when this was nearly impossible. Robeson was also a law school graduate, a gifted athlete, as well as a film star and stage actor. He is perhaps best known as a champion of civil and personal rights throughout the world, especially as an advocate of equal rights for Blacks. His unique abilities and artistry were known world-wide, especially in the Soviet Union. So that is where the name came for this unique “black” tomato came from – as a tribute to this amazing man.

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