Heirloom tomatoes are tomatoes that are passed from generation to generation within a family, usually because they have desirable characteristics that the growers wish to maintain.
The term ‘heirloom’ in application to plants was coined by Kent Whealy of the American Seeds Savers Exchange company, who described some special plants of his as ‘heirloom’ during a speech he made in Tucson, Arizona in 1981. Since the word entered the vernacular of gardeners and farmers worldwide, its earlier connotations have now expanded, and ‘heirloom’ is now applied to commercial seeds without the generational connotations.
The Four Categories of Heirloom Tomatoes
Craig LeHoullier and Carolyn Male, two American tomato experts, isolated four categories of heirloom tomato during their research on the subject:
- Family heirlooms – The original heirloom category. Family heirlooms are the seeds of tomatoes that have been passed down through the generations of a family, usually for a good reason (they have a unique color, an excellent taste, a robust appearance, etc.). An example of a family heirloom tomato is the Aunt Ruby’s German Green.
- Commercial heirlooms – Open-pollinated varieties of tomatoes that have been in circulation for longer than 50 years, and which were introduced by seed companies. If a variety of tomato remains in circulation for over half a century, then there’s usually good reason for it; thus, such tomatoes are awarded the ‘heirloom’ honor. An example of a commercial heirloom tomato is the Yellow Pear.
- Mystery heirlooms – The result of natural cross-pollination between different varieties of heirloom tomatoes. Most heirloom varieties originated this way. An example of a mystery heirloom tomato is the Serendipity Striped.
- Created heirlooms – A tomato that has been deliberately cross-pollinated with two heirloom varieties, or a hybrid tomato and a heirloom tomato. Created heirlooms begin as hybrids, but soon become ‘more’ heirloom as their least desirable characteristics gradually faded in favor of the more desirable characteristics. An example of a created heirloom tomato is the Black Ruffles.
The Importance of Heirlooms
Unfortunately, many varieties of heirloom tomatoes have disappeared since 1940, alongside many of the small family-run farms that produced them. Most of these varieties were either lost or replaced by hybrid tomatoes that were considered more desirable, from a commercial standpoint, than the often eccentric-looking full heirlooms. Consequently, we have lost much genetic diversity amongst our tomatoes – a trend that is increasing at an alarming rate. One only needs to look at the limited variety of tomatoes on sale today – both in supermarkets and in health food stores – to realize that diversity amongst these much-loved fruits is rapidly fading.
So, what can we do? Probably the most obvious way to help reverse this trend is to avoid purchasing the generic, sprayed tomatoes from the international supermarkets and chains, and focus instead on suppliers that supply less common varieties of tomato. Organic markets and co-operatives can be found in every state, and most usually sell organic tomatoes from local farmers and growers whom sell good quality hybrids (and, in some cases, even full heirloom tomatoes). If you grow tomatoes yourself, then buying some heirloom seeds from Seed Savers or a similar company is an excellent decision. Unsurprisingly, the seeds cost a little more than usual, but you’ll be rewarded with both high-quality tomatoes and the knowledge that you are helping a dying industry to rise anew.