There is a lot written about heirloom tomatoes but it is also a topic I get a lot of questions from at the store. This is a reprint of an article I had in last year's store newsletter that I thought would be good to repeat on the blog, as well as give it a place to stay for reference.
There are some varying descriptions of the term heirloom as it applies to plants, but generally speaking it means a variety that is over 50 years old (although some people say they should be over 100 years old) and is open-pollinated, which means the seeds can be saved and the resulting plant will be the same as the parent (as opposed to hybrids where there are different parents and the seeds do not "breed true"). So why does this matter? As Lawrence Davis-Holler explains in his book The Tomato Festival Cookbook, the hybridization after World War II to develop tomatoes that could be picked early and shipped to grocery stores without bruising (thus thicker skins) came at a cost of flavor.
The interest in heirloom tomatoes became more focused with the creation of Seed Savers Exchange in 1975 and over the years farmers have been growing more heirlooms and selling them at farmers markets and restaurants.
And you can grow your own and I would suggest you put in at least a few heirlooms with your other tomatoes, if not just grow heirlooms. Heirloom tomatoes come in almost every size and shape imaginable and that is one of the fun things about growing them. Brandywine can grow up to several pounds and is considered by many to be the best tasting tomato. Colors of heirloom tomatoes can vary from red and pink to black, purple, yellow and green. I love Striped Zebra (green with stripes) and Cherokee Purple and other great named ones are Black Prince, Great White (which is actually yellow) and Striped Cavern to name a few. Many of the heirloom tomatoes have great stories, and whole articles can be written on any one of them, making them even more interesting to grow.
Green Striped Zebra
Green Striped Zebra
Do you have a favorite heirloom? Post your favorite here.