Cat-facing on a heritage Beefsteak tomato: ‘Big Beef’. Photo: MJ Guilbault
Question: There is something wrong with my tomatoes and I don’t know the cause, so I’ve sent you a photo. The plants appear healthy, so it’s probably a pest. Is this something you’ve seen before? If so, what should I do?
Answer: This is a condition called cat-facing because the deformity is sometimes said to resemble a cat’s face … something I would certainly take umbrage with if I were a cat! It’s a physiological condition, not a transmissible disease nor are insects usually involved, although fruit damaged by insects can sometimes develop similar scar tissue.
The problem occurs when the fruit is inadequately pollinated. This causes parts of the fruit to develop more quickly than the rest, leading to dimpling and cracking and that results in scar tissue. Often the damage originates at the blossom end of the fruit. Subsequently, however, diseases or insects can take up residence in the openings, giving the impression that they are the cause.
Cat-facing is generally linked to abnormal temperatures, either too hot or too cold, both of which prevent normal pollination. When temperatures above 86 ° F (30 ° C) or below over 55 ° F (13 ° C) occur just as the flower is opening and ready for pollination, that can lead to pollen that sticks poorly to the stigma. That’s one reason cat-facing often seems it to appear a few weeks after a cold spell or a major heat wave.
Other factors involved are irregular watering and excessive nitrogen-rich fertilizer (one where the first of the three numbers on the fertilizer label is greater than the others).
Note that the cat face is generally limited to extra-large tomatoes, especially Beefsteak, and to heirloom varieties. It is rarely seen in cherry tomatoes or modern tomatoes of more modest size.
Yes, You Can Eat Ugly Tomatoes
Fruits suffering from cat-facing remain edible and tasty: you just have to remove the scar tissue with a knife, which adds a bit of extra work to their preparation. Ugly tomatoes have little market value, though.
This problem is most easily avoided by choosing varieties that are resistant to it … and that would include most tomatoes other than Beefsteak tomatoes and some of the heritage varieties, so you have plenty of choice.
If big, beefy tomatoes are your thing, though, one way you can help reduce the problem is by delaying planting tomatoes outdoors in the spring until the soil and air are warmer: over 55 ° F (13 ° C).
There isn’t much you can do about extreme summer heat, other than to mulch. Mulch helps keep the soil cooler and therefore tomato roots as well.
Mulch also helps keep soil more evenly moist and that also helps prevent cat-facing. It further helps if you don’t wait until the leaves wilt before watering and, when you do water, if you water thoroughly. Quick, shallowing watering will only make things worse.
Finally, anything that will help ensure thorough pollination will be useful. For example, you can also plant a wide range of pollinator-friendly flowers near your tomatoes or pollinate the tomato flowers yourself with an electric toothbrush if you’re not seeing a lot of bumblebee action. And likewise avoid the use of insecticides that are harmful to bees and other pollinators.
Cat-facing: it’s easy to avoid … unless you just can’t live without those huge Beefsteak tomatoes!