Heirloom Tomatoes: The Alternative to Tasteless Commercial Tomatoes

When is the last time you bit into a really tasty tomato? Unless you grow your own tomatoes or frequent a Farmer’s Market featuring heirloom tomatoes, the answer to that question may be . . . never.

Commercial tomatoes are grown with an eye for business. Good traveling tomatoes have thick skins, less juice and a uniform appearance (round and red). Most are picked green and then gassed to add the color. Something has to give with this approach. Both flavor and variety are sacrificed when tomatoes are agri-picked for traits related to production and transport rather than for flavor.

Even mass-market, home, garden tomatoes have been hybridized to the point of being bland and rather tasteless. Corporate seed growers began to offer hybrid starter plants in the 1940s. The advantage to buying hybrids was that planters could skip the seed saving and seedling growing stages and also acquire plants bred to produce well with solid disease tolerance. The downside of the proliferation of hybrids is that only a few tomatoes were deemed suitable for public distribution. These few brand name tomatoes, bred by crossing two plants to create a hybrid, became the standard and could not be replicated by seed, since hybrids do not grow true from seed.

As the world shifted to mass produced tomatoes, some individuals continued the age old tradition of taking seeds from prime fruits and growing out family favorites. Many an envelope of seeds passed from friend to friend keeping old-fashioned tomatoes from being lost forever to an age of selective produce breeding.

An Organized Effort to Save our Seeds

In 1975, Barbara and Kent Whealy of Iowa founded Seed Savers, a clearinghouse for the collection and distribution of heirloom seeds including tomato seeds. The non-profit organization today is headquartered at Heritage Farm in Decorah (Iowa) and boasts 8000 members from the United States, Canada, and other countries around the world. The group has helped identify, organize, and distribute varieties so that heirlooms have managed to survive despite being minor players on the economic playing field.

Heritage Farm is open to the public from March through December. The 890-acre estate is an educational experience including gardens, orchards, and ancient cattle. For more information or to arrange guided tours, call 1-563-382-5990.

Heirloom Tomatoes – Defined

Heirloom is defined in various ways, and no standard definition exists as far as classification. There are, however, some common characteristics of most tomatoes classified as heirloom.

1. Heirloom seeds have passed generation to generation with most being documented as being around for 50 years or more.

2. Fruits (vegetables) classified heirloom must grow true from seed. In other words, heirloom tomatoes are open pollinated rather than hybrid.

3. Most heirloom varieties have a history. The folklore attached to the seed/tomato may include data about the origination area or about the person or family credited with breeding the strain.

Characteristics of Heirloom Tomatoes

Growing heirloom tomatoes can be a new experience all round, because old varieties often behave differently from the standard hybrids.

Heirloom tomatoes are open pollinated. Put them in the garden, and they do the rest. Some growers do pollinate and some shake the plants to ensure production, but heirlooms are pretty low maintenance.

One note on pollination is that since the plants take care of the duties, this means that plants can cross. Unless you hope to produce a new variety, then leave space between different varieties. Seeds saved from crosses will not grow true.
The bulk of heirlooms are indeterminate. This means that they can grow huge and lush that than to a determinate height (typically 4 foot). Plants may reach heights of eight feet or higher. Though some varieties do fine in commercial tomato cages, many need more support.

While commercial determinate plants usually produce all at once, most heirlooms bear throughout the season with a few fruits each day. This means a fresh supply of vine ripe tomatoes.

Heirlooms, on the down side, are more susceptible to disease. It’s a good idea to grow more than one variety if growing heirlooms.

Favorite Heirloom Tomato Varieties

If you want to get heirloom tomato growers up in arms, then ask which varieties are best. With thousands of tomatoes grown by tomato lovers all over the world, a favorites list could be pages long and subject to intense debate. As far as taste considerations, here are a few heirlooms that are often mentioned:

Brandywine-An Amish variety dating back to the late 1800s, Brandwine is one of the most well known heirloom varieties. They have a good, full tomato taste with a little kick.

Cherokee Purple-A dark colored variety of medium size and round shape, Cherokee Purple is a rich, sweet tomato good for eating or slicing for sandwiches.

Hillbilly-From the hills of West Virgina, Hillbilly is rainbow colored with orange-yellow to red-pink streaks. Hilly produces big fruits at 1-2 pounds each.

Kellogg’s Breakfast-A large, orange tomato, KB is a solid fruit with few seeds around the edges. No. This tomato is not created or named for the breakfast food company. But, it is tasty with buttered toast and fried eggs.

Black Krim-These are such a deep red they appear to be black. This is another favorite sweet tomato that often appeals even to folks who don’t care much for tomatoes in general.

Novelty Heirloom Tomato Varieties

Part of the fun of growing heirloom tomatoes is trying out new varieties. These are all fun to grow. Kids really get a kick out of the unusual varieties.

Tiny Tim – Tiny Tim is a dwarf determinate plant reaching 6 to 12 inches. Fruits are about inch. They grow and fruit quick. These are fun to grow in containers. This is a top pick for gardening kids.

Mr. Stripey-Red and yellow tiger stripes characterize this unique heirloom. These are low in acid so do not have a big tomato zing.

Evergreen-Don’t wait for this one to turn red. It stays true to name and is green even when fully ripe.

White Beauty-This variety was thought to have disappeared but recently was reintroduced. The fruits are good sized and creamy white in color.

Yellow Stuffer-This hollow tomato is used more a bell pepper than a tomato. Fill with a mixture of rice/meat for a one fruit meal.

Starting from Seed

Though heirloom seedlings are available at some shops today, supply and varieties are limited. Anyone wanting to grow heirlooms would do well to look at starting from seed. Tomatoes are some of the easiest plants to grow from seed. A good number of online companies offer seeds and also instructions for starting and growing tomatoes.

Go For It

Tomatoes rank right behind potatoes in terms of popularity. In fact, it’s odd to compare a fruit to a vegetable, but tomatoes (which are technically fruits) were deemed vegetables by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1893. This decision had economic implications, since vegetables were taxed while fruits were not. In Nix vs. Hedden, justices applied a usage definition noting that tomatoes are used more like vegetables than fruits. For most practical purposes, they are considered in the vegetable class.

Whether you think of them as fruits or vegetables, tomatoes are tasty. Nibbled right in the garden or cooked down for recipes or even squeezed for juice, they pack a nutritional punch. They are a good source of Vitamin C and also cancer-fighting Clycopene. Some individuals even use tomatoes packed on the face and swear that they make the skin look and feel younger.

Check out the Garden Web forums for an active group of gardeners dedicated to growing heirloom tomatoes. Another neat place to visit is Seed Savers Org where you can purchase heirloom seeds saved by this non-profit organization.

There are loads tomatoes out there with varieties that appeal to almost every taste bud. If you’re using grocery tomatoes, then you’re missing a whole big tomato world. Look for heirlooms, or better yet, grow a plant or two.

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