Here’s another tomato oddity to add to list this year: a variegated tomato plant. Didn’t know that even existed? Neither did I until a couple of months ago.
Shortly after transplanting the tomatoes into the raised beds, I noticed that one of the plants (an heirloom Opalka) had some white areas on its leaves. My first instinct was to assume that the plant was experiencing a little sun scald, which seemed completely logical, given the fact that the squirrels had forced me to move all the tomatoes to the porch for the last week or two before they went into the ground.
But as time went on, even some of the new growth was emerging with the same white markings, and I knew it wasn’t just a matter of sun exposure. Around that same time, we had my family up to celebrate the June birthdays, so I had my brother (Mr. Ph.D in plant genetics) take a look at it. He was a little stumped as well, guessing that it was either a random genetic mutation or some kind of virus that was causing the variegated leaves, and he was leaning towards virus (related interesting fact: variegated tulips were originally caused by a virus before they were bred for that characteristic).
I spent a good amount of time Googling “tomato viruses” and scrolling through photos of abnormal tomato leaves, but I never could find an exact match, so in one last attempt to find a definitive answer before digging the tomato plant out of the garden (if it was a virus, I certainly didn’t want to risk it spreading to the other plants), I posted a few photos in a gardening forum I belong to, to see if any of my fellow gardeners had any ideas. One of them pointed me to this article, which is incredibly technical, but ultimately answered the question that, yes, sometimes tomatoes can grow variegated leaves (who knew!?).
As I browsed through the article, the description was pretty much spot on with what I was observing in my garden: There were both variegated and leaves with a normal appearance on the same plant. The variegated leaves varied a bit, some of them having just a little bit of variegation, and others looking almost entirely white washed. The lighter colored areas of the leaves had less cell structure, and were flat, compared to the greener parts of the leaves that looked just as you expect them to. The variegation also extended to the stems of the corresponding leaves.
So I left the plant in the garden to grow. It was somewhat stunted, and grew at a slower pace than the rest of the tomatoes in the garden (the number one reason my brother was leaning towards virus), but it did eventually bloom at set fruit (notice that even the sepals have some lighter stripes in them). The fruit took a while to really start growing (they stayed about the size of the photo above for quite a while before they started to elongate, which you can also see had a little bit of a effect on the appearance once they started to grow in earnest).