Have you ever wondered where red tomatoes originally came from? If so, we’ve got the answer: the red currant tomato. In this article, we’ll discuss this ancestor of all modern red tomatoes that you can still grow today.
The red currant tomato (also called the Wild South American tomato) is a type of tomato sometimes called a grape or cluster tomato. They’re similar to wild cherry tomatoes growing in Mexico but smaller. The fruits hang in clusters resembling red currants, giving them their name. They’re the smallest edible tomato and can be eaten off the vine for a burst of flavor.
If you want a novel tomato variety that gets discussion going, keep reading to see if a red currant tomato should be in your garden.
History of the Red Currant Tomato
The red currant tomato is native to Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil where it grows wild. It’s the closest descendant to the wild tomato it split off from 1.4 million years ago. Here’s a brief history of the red currant tomato:
- In 1707 the red currant was discovered growing on a beach in Peru by French explorer, Aédéc Feuilléc.
- In 1725 it was illustrated by Louis Feuille.
- In 1763 it was described by Carl Linnaeus.
- In 1859 red currant tomatoes began appearing in seed catalogs.
- In 1863 the “grape or cluster tomato” was recorded in “American Gardens” by Fearing Burr.
- In 1883 and 1885 it was named as the “Red Currant” tomato by Vilmorin (a seed company).
- In 1918 it was described as the “Smallest of all sorts” of tomatoes in the Livingston Seed Company catalog.
- In 2004 it was introduced by Seed Savers Exchange (SSE).
Red currant tomatoes were used to create many modern cherry tomato varieties, which were then crossed with red currant tomatoes themselves. For this reason, true red currant tomatoes are hard to find.
Today, red currant tomatoes still grow wild along the coast of South America, along with 11 other wild tomato species.
Characteristics of the Red Currant Tomato
True red currant tomatoes, Solanum pimpinellifolium, are indeterminate heirloom tomatoes. These productive plants have sprawling vines growing up to 8′ long and 3′ wide — use stakes, cages, or trellises to keep vines and fruit off the ground.
Red currant tomato leaves are small and delicate with a more “acrid” odor than garden tomato varieties. They’re a different species from regular garden tomatoes, but will cross-pollinate with other tomatoes. If you’re saving seeds to grow red currants the following year, plant these tomatoes where they won’t cross-pollinate with other tomato varieties (at least 20-25 feet away from other tomatoes).
To grow new red currants from your current crop without saving seeds, just allow some fruit to fall to the ground. A red currant will reseed itself in a spot that doesn’t get tilled or have cover crops planted. Again, be sure it’s far away from other tomato varieties. Otherwise, there’s no guarantee the fruit seeds will produce red currants the next year.
Ripening Season (early, late, etc)
Red currants are mid-season tomatoes, maturing in 75-80 days and producing until the first frost.
Red currant tomato fruit grows in clusters of 10-20 fruits (depending on the variety). Fruits contain a high number of seeds and have a crisp texture.
Red currants resemble cherry tomatoes but smaller — sometimes pearl-sized. They’re round or oval-shaped, half-inch fruits filled with juicy pulp.
Red currant tomatoes can withstand the hottest zones in the US, but they can also tolerate cooler temperatures — they’re listed for zones 1-13 (a greenhouse is likely needed for colder zones). Start seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before the last spring frost. Plant young tomato plants outdoors when nighttime temperatures stay above 50 degrees.
Size and Spacing
Ideally, plant red currant tomatoes next to a fence or trellis to support the vines. Make sure the location meets the plant’s sunlight needs.
Red currants are self-pollinating.
The following sections will provide highlights about tomato care. For a complete guide on optimal tomato plant care, from planting to harvesting and storage, please check out our article on How To Grow Tomatoes: The Complete Guide For the Best Tomatoes.
Red currants require basic tomato care.
Red currant tomatoes need 8 hours of sunlight a day.
Plant red currant tomatoes in soil suitable for any tomato variety — well-draining, loamy, slightly acidic (pH 6.2 – 6.8), and amended with compost.
Tomatoes need soil to be moist, not soggy. Mulching helps retain moisture. Provide water to keep the top 1-2 inches of soil moist (1-2 inches of water a week).
Tomatoes require specific nutrients (such as calcium) to produce their best crops of fruit. To learn how to determine what your tomatoes need and when they need it, consult our ultimate tomato fertilizer guide.
While red currant tomatoes grow wild without interference from gardeners, they’ll benefit from pinching in your garden. Pinching helps the plant direct energy into producing fruit (instead of extra leaves and vines) and keeps plant size manageable. To help you with this, visit our pruning tomatoes guide.
Red currants are very disease resistant, but you should take normal precautions against diseases. Watering the base of the plant to keep foliage dry and removing any foliage/vines touching the ground are the best ways to prevent diseases.
To learn how to detect, treat, and take steps to prevent diseases, read our tomato diseases guide.
Pests love tomatoes. Aphids, whiteflies, tomato hornworms, slugs, pill bugs, stink bugs, birds, and rodents are just a few to be on the lookout for. For information to help you spot, eliminate, and deter 15 different pests, visit our guide on common tomato pests.
When to Harvest Red Currant Tomatoes
In the warmest US growing zones, you can begin harvesting red currant tomatoes in mid-May. Plan for harvesting through mid-September, or until the first frost. A plant produces hundreds of small fruits, so you’ll probably pick fruit daily.
Common Uses For Red Currant Tomatoes
This isn’t the tomato to use for burgers or sandwiches, but there are plenty of ways to enjoy your red currants. It’s good for canning, drying, preserves, juices, sauces, and salads. These are favorites for tomato jam recipes.
What Does This Tomato Taste Like?
Red currant tomatoes are described as “exceptionally sweet,” “intensely tomato-y,” and loaded with flavor that varies depending on the variety grown. Some are tangy or sweet/tart (Lemon Drop), others are sweet with a hint of wine (Sweet Pea), while others have a spicy taste.
Sweet Pea, Hawaiian, and Sugar Plum are the three sweetest varieties.
Use red currants for tagines, sauces, tomato preserves, soups, stews, and casseroles. Cut them in half or use them whole.
Because they’re so small, red currant tomatoes can be eaten whole. This makes them excellent garnishes or salad ingredients.
Canning / Freezing / Drying
Red currants can be preserved by canning, freezing, or drying. Use frozen tomatoes for cooked recipes since they lose some of their original texture.
Health Benefits of Tomatoes
All tomatoes are high in fiber, vitamins C and K, potassium, and folate. They’re also one of the best dietary sources of lycopene, an antioxidant credited with reducing the risks of heart disease and cancer.
Something worth noting about these tomatoes: Red currants have 4 times the amount of vitamin C found in other tomato varieties.
Where to Buy Red Currant Tomato Plants or Seeds
- To help you find red currants, look for the names: Sweet Pea, Hawaiian, Jungle Salad, Spoon, Matt’s Wild Cherry, or Sugar Plum.
- White/yellow currants go by the names: Gold Rush, Lemon Drop, and Golden Rave.
- In addition, there are Red and Yellow Blend and Cerise Orange currant tomatoes.
Where to Buy Red Currant Tomatoes
You might find red currant tomatoes in large grocery stores — even Wal-Mart Supercenters mention them online. It’s possible they’ll be labeled “grape tomatoes.”
It All Started With the Tiny Red Currant
The red currant is an edible form of tomato history. All modern-day red tomatoes are descendants of this tomato. The fruit’s tiny size and concentrated flavor make it especially popular with children. The copious yields mean a daily supply of freshly picked tomatoes to enjoy.
Interestingly, some gardeners have complained because red currant tomato fruits are small and there are so many of them to pick. You’ll have to decide how much effort you’re willing to put into harvesting to determine if this is the right tomato for you.
Have you grown red currant tomatoes in your garden or do you have an amazing red currant tomato recipe? Let us know in the comments section below! To read about other tomato varieties, click here for our tomato blog posts.