What is heirloom tomato?

Growing Heirloom Tomato Plants

Anyone with a gardener in the family tree can probably relate a story of a flower or vegetable variety prized by a grandparent, aunt, uncle, or other relative. But until recently, those old-fashioned plants were not widely available. Interest in heirloom varieties, including tomatoes, has increased in the past few years. Today, many gardeners are attracted to heirloom tomato plants for the diversity of color, flavor, and plant type. If you’ve never considered an heirloom tomato plant, you might want to try one. Here are some basics to guide you.

What They Are

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To better understand how to grow heirloom tomato plants, you must first know a little about tomato reproduction. An open-pollinated (OP) tomato variety breeds true from seed, meaning the seed saved from the parent plant will grow offspring with the same characteristics. OP seed is produced by allowing a natural flow of pollen between different plants of the same variety.

Heirloom tomatoes are more easily described by what they are not. Most heirlooms predate the 1950s and are OP, meaning they are not hybrids. Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, defines an heirloom as any garden plant that has a history of being passed down within a family, just like pieces of heirloom jewelry or furniture. “They’ve been handed down from generation to generation,” says Kelly Tagtow, marketing manager at Seed Savers Exchange. Preventing cross-pollination and maintaining varietal purity is the primary work of companies such as Seed Savers Exchange.

All heirlooms and OP plants can and do cross-pollinate. And to confuse things further, while all heirlooms are open-pollinated, not all OPs are heirlooms. A hybrid variety, on the other hand, does not breed true from seed; hybrid seed is produced by crossing two different parent varieties of the same species. Hybrids do not remain true in generations after the initial cross and cannot be saved from generation to generation unchanged; most of the mass-market tomato plants are in this category.

Heirloom plants are part of the White House garden; discover how the White House Chef uses that harvest.

Where They Come From

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It depends. Some heirloom tomatoes have a long, traceable history. For example, one seed saver donated an heirloom tomato, ‘Emmy’, to Seed Savers Exchange; it is named for a woman who fled Romania after World War II with one of her Transylvanian tomatoes. The beefsteak-size ‘German Pink’ tomato from Seed Savers Exchange was brought from Bavaria in the 1880s by cofounder Diane Ott Whealy’s great-grandfather.

How They Grow

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As with growing mass-market tomatoes, gardeners in northern climates will have more success growing heirloom tomato plants if they start seeds indoors or plant seedlings. Once established, most heirlooms are indeterminate, which means they will continue to grow throughout the summer and will produce fruit continually. “Indeterminate tomatoes aren’t nice, compact plants,” Tagtow says. “If you want them to grow upright, you have to stake them.”

What to Expect

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For gardeners who are growing heirloom tomato plants, the big surprise often comes with their uniqueness: colors from yellow to orange to red to purple; flavor that’s inexplicably complex and rich; and literally thousands of kinds of tomatoes to grow. Seed Savers Exchange alone has 70 in its catalog and 4,000 varieties in its member exchange. If you grow a particular heirloom that you like, you can save its seeds at season’s end. And perhaps most importantly, if your heirloom tomato has been grown historically in your region, you can expect a plant well suited for your garden. “It’s a unique look and taste and texture that you can’t find in most grocery stores,” Tagtow says.

But be warned: Just because you are growing heirloom tomato plants doesn’t mean they’ll be resistant to disease. For example, many hybrid tomatoes have an inbred resistance to tobacco mosaic disease, but heirlooms don’t.

Get tips for growing healthy tomatoes.

Where to Find

If you are interested in growing heirloom tomato plants, many independent gardening stores sell heirloom tomato seeds, and companies such as Seed Savers Exchange have them available to order.

Growing Tomatoes in Containers

  • By Kelly Roberson

Welcome Gardening Friend! Glad you dropped in.

When we first started growing tomatoes several years ago, I didn’t know the difference between heirloom and hybrid tomatoes. I had heard about heirloom tomatoes and wondered what that meant. To me, an heirloom tomato sounded like some prized family possession (like great-great grandma’s china plates) or some secret family seed (like that secret family recipe for chocolate cake) that had been passed down from generation to generation. Basically, it made them sound unattainable without a special connection to someone from a family that had been growing tomatoes for countless generations. That was my impression. So, I simply went about my business of buying tomato starts at the local garden centers. I didn’t hear the term “hybrid tomato” until a few years ago. Hybrids were the kinds of tomatoes I’d been growing but didn’t know it.

As the push for more natural and organic ways of producing food has been growing, the market for heirloom tomatoes has become much more mainstream. One can buy packets of certain varieties of heirloom tomato seeds at pretty much any gardening center and starts for heirloom tomatoes can also be found in more locations.

But really,

What’s the difference between heirloom and hybrid tomatoes?

One way to define an heirloom tomato is a variety that has been passed down within a family or has been around for at least 50 years (though it seems there is some controversy about how old a variety of tomato needs to be in order to be considered an heirloom1 ). Some heirlooms are recorded as having been cultivated for hundreds of years or more.

An HEIRLOOM TOMATO is one that has been selectively reproduced for certain characteristics, perhaps a certain trait that is best suited for a growing region or a certain color or flavor. It may be the best one for canning/bottlings because of its acidic content. Or maybe a variety that is huge and juicy, where one slice fills an entire sandwich! Some varieties of heirloom tomatoes include Black Beauty, Brandywine, Chocolate Stripes, Green or Red Zebra, Big Rainbow, and many more. As the names would suggest, heirloom tomatoes come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors.

Many would argue that heirloom tomatoes are more flavorful. I have personally grown Brandywine for several years and can attest that they are delicious and juicy. They also can grow to be quite large, but the same vine could also produce medium or smallish fruit. They are not completely consistent in size, but always tasty!

A word of caution: Watch your heirloom tomatoes and don’t let them over-ripen on the vine. Since the colors of an heirloom can vary so much from what most people are used to, like that “tomato red” we all see on hybrid varieties we buy at the grocery store, it can be quite easy to not know an heirloom is ready for harvesting until it’s too late. Read up on the particular heirloom tomatoes you choose so you can be aware of what to watch for to assess ripeness.

Since an heirloom tomato is one that has been specifically selected over generations of plants for its traits, it is possible to take the seeds from a tomato grown in a home garden and use them to grow that same variety during the next growing season. (IMPORTANT NOTE: If your heirloom tomato cross-pollinates with some other variety of tomato in your garden, you will end up with seeds that are not true to the original plant. If you’re interested in preventing this from happening, there are guides on how to prevent cross-pollination.)

A HYBRID TOMATO is one that is the result of intentionally cross-pollinating two different varieties of tomato. This means the “child” plant will have characteristics of both of the “parent” plants. These tomatoes can be very hardy, disease resistant, and produce fruit that is consistent in size and shape. Being disease resistant is probably the biggest and most important benefit. There are few things as frustrating as growing a big beautiful plant, have lots of fruit forming, then get a plant virus that destroys your crop.

Some popular varieties of hybrid tomatoes are Big Beef, Cherry, Sweet 100, Early Girl, Better Boy, and Grape.

The biggest difference between heirloom and hybrid tomatoes…

…is what kind of 2nd generation fruit will grow from this year’s plant. You can’t be certain what kind of tomato will grow from the seed of a hybrid. Often the seeds are sterile and will not sprout at all. In the event that they do sprout, they probably won’t be the same as the plant you harvested them from. We planted a Cherry tomato two years ago and had lots of volunteer plants growing in that area of the garden the next season. We let a few of them grow and found that the plant produced fruit that was pea size, or smaller! They were delicious but a real pain to harvest.

Be sure to check your local independent garden shop, like Western Gardens in Salt Lake City, to find the most popular varieties that will do well in your climate and area. The locals will have the biggest variety and most unique varieties for you to enjoy.

Either way, the difference between heirloom and hybrid tomatoes may not matter to you. Nevertheless, whichever you chose to plant in your garden, they have one big thing in common: they are designed to be eaten and enjoyed!

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  • Bio
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Marjorie Carter

Marjorie has lived throughout the world but chose to settle here in Utah. She has a degree in anthropology and a master’s in public health. Marjorie and her husband love gardening from their first little apartment to their now established home with mature fruit trees. “Gardening is about eating and preserving food we grow and love, saving money, having an excuse to be outside, teaching our daughter about nature and good food, and so much more.”

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What Is An Heirloom Tomato?


An heirloom is generally considered to be a variety that has been passed down, through several generations of a family because of it’s valued characteristics. Since ‘heirloom’ varieties have become popular in the past few years there have been liberties taken with the use of this term for commercial purposes. At TomatoFest Garden Seeds we chose to adopt the definition used by tomato experts, Craig LeHoullier and Carolyn Male, who have classified down heirlooms into four categories:

  1. Commercial Heirlooms: Open-pollinated varieties introduced before 1940, or tomato varieties more than 50 years in circulation.
  2. Family Heirlooms: Seeds that have been passed down for several generations through a family.
  3. Created Heirlooms: Crossing two known parents (either two heirlooms or an heirloom and a hybrid) and dehybridizing the resulting seeds for how ever many years/generations it takes to eliminate the undesirable characteristics and stabilize the desired characteristics, perhaps as many as 8 years or more.
  4. Mystery Heirlooms: Varieties that are a product of natural cross-pollination of other heirloom varieties.

(Note: All heirloom varieties are open-pollinated but not all open-pollinated varieties are heirloom varieties.)

Where did the term “Heirloom” plants begin?

The term “Heirloom” applied to plants was apparently first used by Kent Whealy of Seed Savers Exchange, who first used “heirloom” in relation to plants in a speech he gave in Tucson in 1981. He had asked permission to use the term “heirloom” from John Withee, who had used the term on the cover of his bean catalog. John said sure, that he had taken it from Prof. William Hepler at the University of New Hampshire, who first used the term “heirloom” to describe some beans that friends had given him back in the 1940s.

The Importance of “Heirloom” Tomatoes.

In the past 40 years, we’ve lost many of our heirloom varieties, along with the many smaller family farms that supported heirlooms. The multitude of heirlooms that had adapted to survive well for hundreds of years were lost or replaced by fewer hybrid tomatoes, bred for their commercially attractive characteristics.

In the process we have also lost much of the ownership of foods typically grown by family gardeners and small farms, and we are loosing the genetic diversity at an accelerating and alarming rate.

Every heirloom variety is genetically unique and inherent in this uniqueness is an evolved resistance to pests and diseases and an adaptation to specific growing conditions and climates. With the reduction in genetic diversity, food production is drastically at risk from plant epidemics and infestation by pests. Call this genetic erosion.

The late Jack Harlan, world-renowned plant collector who wrote the classic Crops and Man while Professor of Plant Genetics at University of Illinois at Urbana, wrote, “These resources stand between us and catastrophic starvation on a scale we cannot imagine. In a very real sense, the future of the human race rides on these materials. The line between abundance and disaster is becoming thinner and thinner, and the public is unaware and unconcerned. Must we wait for disaster to be real before we are heard? Will people listen only after it is too late.”

It is up to us as gardeners and responsible stewards of the earth to assure that we sustain the diversity afforded us through heirloom varieties.

With regular red round beefsteak tomatoes, there’s no real surprises. You get a box of red, round, shiny tomatoes that can be shipped from here to there—perfect for slicing and dicing. And they’re great.

But when you open a box of heirloom tomatoes, you don’t really know what you are going to get—and that’s part of their charm.

While regular tomatoes are grown for appearance and graded into specific sizes, heirloom tomatoes are grown for flavor. Round or plum tomatoes are perfect for the majority of what you need tomatoes for, like chopping, slicing, or cooking. Since they are sized and graded, they make it easier on food costs or par ordering. If you have a banquet of 500 guests, you have a good idea of how many cases to order.

Heirlooms have a look only a mother could love, and are the tomatoes that your grandmother and great grandmother probably ate. They are lumpy, sometimes have splits or cracks in the skin, color striations, and their thin skin is soft to the touch when ripe. They can be a riot of colors and sizes: green striped, deep purply to dark brown, bright yellow and orange, or any mix of colors in between.

They are juicy, and they are flavorful—and that last part is what makes them special.

These guys are loaded with flavor.

Some common varieties of heirloom tomatoes are:

  • Purple Cherokee
  • Brandywine
  • Black Cherry
  • Gold Medal
  • Green Zebra

What makes something an “heirloom”?

Let’s get into a couple of quick facts about them.

According to Bonnie Seeds, there is a difference between a hybrid tomato and an heirloom.

You know what a hybrid car is, it’s an intentional cross between gas and electric. So, a hybrid plant is when plant breeders intentionally cross-pollinate two different varieties of a plant, looking for the best traits.

Heirlooms are open-pollinated which means they are pollinated out in the wide open as nature intended. Bees, insects, birds, or how the wind blows: there is no intentional intervention. Heirlooms are grown from saved seeds and are at least 50 years old, and some can be a 100+ years old. They are beautiful just sliced and served with little else needed except a splash of good olive oil and a sprinkle of flaky salt.

Dan explains a few different types of heirlooms:

In his heirloom tomato video, Dan went over a few different types of heirlooms.

  • Commercial Heirlooms: open-pollinated varieties more than 50 years in circulation
  • Family Heirlooms: seeds that have been passed down for generations
  • Created Heirlooms: intentional crosses
  • Mystery Heirlooms: these are luck-of-the-draw kinda heirloom as a result of natural cross-pollination

You have homework to do…

You have some homework. Like a nice piece of stone fruit, heirloom tomatoes are rarely ready to eat right out of the box. Since they are so soft when ripe, our heirloom tomatoes generally ship unripe–leaving the ripening up to you. For best results, plan ahead and allow these beauties to ripen at their own pace—and need we say it?—leave them out of the refrigerator. Store them in the cooler part of your dry storage, away from heat sources and let nature, and time, take its course.

Flavor and consistency

By the way, if you are looking for a tomato that is a little more predictable in consistency but still has great flavor, check out the Ugly Ripe tomato. It’s always the peak of summer with these guys…they are consistent in shape, flavor, and supply–and available year round.

Content and images provided by Lisa Pettineo, the Digital Marketing Manager for FreshPoint, Inc. She has been in the produce industry for almost 20 years and loves talking about fruits and veggies.

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Everything You Need to Know About Heirloom Tomatoes

Whether you’re browsing the farmers’ market or strolling through the produce aisle, you’re likely to come across heirloom tomatoes. But what exactly makes a tomato heirloom, and why are they so much more expensive? The simple answer is they are a variety grown from seeds that have been passed down through generations (of farmers) and, some experts claim, taste better. Here’s what you need to know.

What Is an Heirloom Tomato?

Unlike commercially grown tomatoes found at the supermarket, gardeners who grow heirloom tomatoes are using seeds that have been passed down for many years. According to tomato experts Craig LeHoullier and Carolyn Male, heirloom tomatoes can be broken down into four categories based on how they are grown: commercial, family, created and mystery. For example, created heirlooms are tomatoes crossed between two heirlooms, while family heirlooms come from seeds that have been kept within a family. Commercial heirlooms can be described as cultivars that were introduced many generations ago and mystery heirloom varieties are products that are created accidentally from natural cross-pollination.

RELATED The Ultimate Guide to Choosing the Right Type of Tomato “

Heirloom tomatoes are also open-pollinated, meaning pollination occurs naturally through insects and the wind, rather than outside assistance. Hybrid tomatoes found in the grocery store are pollinated by hand.

Is It Better To Buy Heirloom Tomatoes?

Hybrid tomatoes are often crossbred to have particular characteristics, such as color, skin thickness and resistance to pests, and can be mass-produced, which is why they’re less expensive. While you might end up with a perfectly shiny red tomato, it often lacks flavor, because they are often picked before they are ready and shipped across the country. There is no evidence to prove heirloom tomatoes are necessarily healthier than hybrids, but if taste is your number one priority, heirlooms are your best choice.

How Should I Store Heirloom Tomatoes?

Tomatoes of all kinds should never be stored in the fridge. Heirloom tomatoes won’t last as long as hybrids and continue to ripen at room temperature, so make sure to use them right away.

Beautiful heirloom tomatoes from the market , the black tomato called “Kumato” is often served with burrata ‍ . . . #italianfood #frenchfood #italianstyle #italiancuisine #frenchcuisine #tomatoes #heirloomtomatoes #robinopizza #foodmarket #lyon #lyonnais #lyonresto #foodlyon #foodideas #lunchideas #dinnerideas #organic #chef #cheflife #yummyfood #freshfood #freshproduce #followmenow #honestfood #slowfood #provence

A post shared by Robino Pizza Café (@robinopizzacafe) on Jun 8, 2017 at 11:05pm PDT

Check out our favorite tomato recipes.

Deciphering the Many Varieties of Tomatoes

If you’re a tomato connoisseur you probably already know just how many varieties of these delicious summertime staples there are. But do you know what makes each one unique? Or how to cultivate them depending on your growing environment? No? Well then sit back and enjoy the read!

The following is an excerpt from The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Grower’s Handbook by Andrew Mefford. It has been adapted for the web.

Tomato Variety Types

The huge importance of tomatoes to greenhouse vegetable growing has resulted in an amazing diversity of cultivars with specific greenhouse adaptations. There are varieties of almost any type you might want to grow available for protected growing. There are even a couple of types—the cluster tomato and truss cherry—that are specific to greenhouse culture.

Jointless varieties, for example, represent a modern innovation for cluster tomatoes. Jointless tomatoes lack the abscission layer where an individual tomato can be removed from the truss. This means that they do not fall off the cluster as easily when being handled. This trait is also sometimes used in field tomatoes so the picked tomatoes do not retain their calyxes, which can puncture other tomatoes during harvest.

Though the beefsteak was the mainstay of the greenhouse tomato industry for a long time, smaller varieties have evolved alongside demand for snacking vegetables. If you told growers twenty years ago that grape, cocktail, and cluster tomatoes would be important categories in the near future, they probably wouldn’t have believed you—if they even knew what those types were.

Keep in mind that smaller-fruited varieties will be lower yielding, more or less in proportion to their size (the smaller the fruit, the lower the yield).

Grape Tomatoes

True grape tomatoes are not just oval-shaped cherry tomatoes. Grape tomatoes have a flavor and texture profile all their own due to being firmer and having less gel and seeds than cherry tomatoes. They are also usually less prone to cracking than cherry tomatoes. Even people who do not appreciate firm tomatoes may like grape tomatoes as long as they are firm without being hard. Good grape tomatoes are one of my personal favorites for eating out of hand.

Grape tomatoes tend to have a very open, wispy-leaved plant habit that is conducive to airflow. They are usually less affected by leaf mold than other types, though leaf mold resistance can still be useful where disease pressure is high.

Cherry Tomatoes and Truss Cherries

Like grape tomatoes, protected culture cherries have open plant types, along with low fruit loads and yields when compared with larger tomatoes. They tend to be sweeter and have better flavor than the larger types.

One subtype of the cherry tomato is known as the truss cherry. Instead of harvesting individual fruits, you harvest the entire truss of tomatoes by clipping it off the plant. Truss cherries are pretty much exclusive to protected cultivation due to the difficulty of producing a perfectly ripened truss of cherry tomatoes in the field. There is usually a target number of fruit on the truss, depending on how many can be fully filled out. If there are more fruits set on the truss than the plant can fill, you may need to nip the last few fruits off the tip off the truss so every fruit is perfectly filled out. The main feature that differentiates a cherry variety developed for truss harvest from one for loose harvest is that most truss cherries are jointless.

Important traits for truss cherry tomatoes include fast ripening and good shelf life, so the first fruit to ripen is not mush by the time the last fruit is ripe. These types are usually marketed in boxes to protect the delicate truss and fruit. This variety depends a lot on presentation, since the fact that it is on the truss shows that it was greenhouse-grown.

Cocktail Tomatoes

Cocktail tomatoes occupy a size class larger than cherry tomatoes and smaller than cluster tomatoes. There are varieties for loose harvest and jointless varieties for cluster harvest. This class of tomatoes is more popular in Europe than it is in North America. My impression is that North Americans like their tomatoes big or small but not in between, and this is an in-between variety.

Nonetheless, there is some market for this type of tomato, which can have very good flavor. It was originally popularized by a single variety, Campari, which is branded and sold under that name. It is sometimes marketed as a salad tomato, one that you can make two quick cuts to and throw on a salad.

Tomatoes on the Vine

Cluster tomatoes, known in the industry as tomatoes on the vine (TOVs), were bred specifically for the greenhouse industry. They have risen to take their place as one of the main greenhouse tomato variety types, along with beefsteaks. In a crowded produce marketplace, the greenhouse tomato industry was trying to differentiate itself from all the other tomatoes on the shelf, especially field tomatoes. The big idea was that if you saw these beautiful ripe tomatoes still attached to a perfectly clean vine that might even still have a whiff of tomato plant smell, the presentation would be so impressive it would set the tomatoes apart from others in the store.

And indeed it’s very difficult to grow a perfect cluster of tomatoes in the field. The possibility of disease causing spots on a tomato, or rain causing split tomatoes, makes it much less likely that an entire cluster of tomatoes will make it out of the field in perfect condition. The other difficulty of producing cluster tomatoes in the field is getting them all to ripen close to one another. Even though TOVs are selected for fast ripening, having heat to keep the tomatoes ripening as quickly as possible is almost essential to getting the last one to ripen before the first one gets overripe.

Unfortunately, TOVs represent yet another example of produce whose best qualities—freshness and flavor— have been bred out. Many of the most commonly grown tomatoes in the industry recently have been varieties that prioritize production over flavor.

Still, some TOV varieties are much better than others, and have the potential to be quite good. Most varieties are bred to produce a cluster of four or five medium-sized or six smaller tomatoes. The technique is to grow the entire cluster until the all the tomatoes are ripening, and the one at the end (the last one to ripen) is at least starting to show some color.

Growers with a longer supply chain may pick the cluster with the end tomato still quite green, whereas growers with a shorter supply chain may be able to let the end tomato get riper. At that point the cluster is clipped off the plant and usually placed into the cardboard flat they will be shipped in, to minimize the amount of handling.

Some of the newer TOV varieties are jointless to minimize the amount of tomatoes that fall off the cluster. Many wholesalers have very stringent standards and will only buy clusters with a certain number of tomatoes. Shelf life and “green parts” (calyx and stem) that stay green for an extended period of time are important development criteria for this type.

As someone who has visited greenhouses with Dumpsters full of tomatoes outside, I have seen firsthand that length of shelf life is not just academic. If shelf life is a concern for you, you can do one of the most basic tests of shelf life yourself. Take several varieties at the same level of maturity, place them into boxes, hold them in conditions similar to what they will be stored at, and see which ones rot faster.


Beefsteak tomatoes used to be the main greenhouse type, originally produced to compete with out-of-season field production. The limitations of growing field varieties in greenhouses quickly led to the development of dedicated greenhouse varieties.

For people who are not familiar with the produce industry, I’m sure it sounds strange to say that one of the last things considered in the development of many new tomato varieties is flavor. But when you consider how many other breeding goals there are, you can understand how this has come to be, however unfortunate it is. Beefsteak varieties are now subject to the same rigors as other tomato varieties, namely to meet the highest standards of appearance, yield, and shelf life.

One way that shelf life is increased is by breeding firmer tomatoes, to the point where some of them are pretty hard even when completely ripe. There are a lot of beautiful greenhouse beefsteak tomatoes out there. Many of them look much better than they taste. Taste new varieties to make sure they are up to your flavor and texture standards before planting a lot of them.

One way that protected culture growers seek to differentiate their produce from field beefsteaks is to harvest with the calyxes on. Since most field tomatoes are harvested loose into bins, the calyxes are removed by the pickers so the stems don’t puncture the other fruit. The fact that greenhouse tomatoes are usually harvested in a single layer straight into the flats they are shipped in means the calyxes can be left on without risk of puncturing other fruit.

If your harvest methods involve piling tomatoes, it’s possible for pickers to clip the stems off and leave the calyx as they are harvesting. Even if consumers don’t know what a calyx is, it does make for nice presentation to leave it on. Curved shears are useful for cutting the stem off flush with the top of the tomato.

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Types of Heirloom Tomatoes

An heirloom tomato is an open-pollinated (non-hybrid) cultivar of tomato. Heirloom tomatoes have become increasingly popular and more readily available in recent years.


The definition of the use of the word heirloom to describe plants is highly debated. One school of thought places an age or date point on the cultivars. For instance, one school says that the seeds must be over 100 years old, others 50 years, and others pick an arbitrary date of 1945 which marks the end of World War II and roughly the beginning of widespread hybrid ue by growers and seed companies or industrial agriculture. It was after the end of World War II that hybrid seeds began to proliferate in the commercial seed trade.

Another way of defining heirloom cultivars is to use the definition of the word “heirloom” in its truest sense. Under this interpretation, a true heirloom is a cultivar that has been nurtured, selected, and handed down from one family member to another for many generations.

Additionally, there is another category of cultivars that could be classified as “commercial heirlooms,” cultivars that were introduced many generations ago and were of such merit that they have been saved, maintained and handed down – even if the seed company has gone out of business or otherwise dropped the line. Additionally, many old commercial releases have actually been family heirlooms that a seed company obtained and introduced.

Regardless of a person’s specific interpretation, most authorities agree that heirlooms, by definition, must be open-pollinated. They may also be open pollinated varieties that were bred and stabilized using classic breeding practices. It is currently generally agreed that no genetically modified organisms can be considered heirloom cultivars. Another important point of discussion is that without the ongoing growing and storage of heirloom plants, the seed companies and the government will control all seed distribution. Most, if not all, hybrid plants cannot be regrown from the seeds of the original plant, thus insuring the dependency on seed distributors for future crops.

Heirloom tomato cultivars can be found in a wide variety of colors, shapes, flavors and sizes. Some cultivars can be prone to cracking or lack disease resistance. As with most garden plants, cultivars can be acclimated over several gardening seasons to thrive in a geographical location through careful selection and seed saving.

Beefsteak Tomato Beefsteak tomatoes are the largest varieties of cultivated tomatoes, sometimes weighing 1 lb (.5 kg) or more. Most are pink or red with numerous small seed compartments distributed throughout the fruit, sometimes displaying pronounced ribbing similar to ancient pre-columbian tomato cultivars.
Eva Purple Ball A heirloom variety from the Black Forest Region of Germany. Excellent mid-sized tomato with thin skin and purplish tinge. Blemish free with great flavor
Cherokee Purple Purple Cherokee tomatoes are beefsteak in style, with green “shoulders” across the top. It was one of the first of the “black” color group of tomatoes. This variety is over 100 years old and was originally grown by the Cherokee Indians The tomato has an excellent rich flavor and is considered one of the best heirlooms. One of the very first known “black”, or deep dusky rose colored cultivars that are becoming so popular. Named in 1990 by Craig LeHoullier, who received seeds of an unnamed cultivar in the mail from J. D. Green of Tennessee. Mr. Green indicated that the “purple” tomato cultivar was given by the Cherokee Indians to his neighbor “100 years ago”.
Green Zebra Green Zebra is a tomato cultivar with characteristic green and yellow stripes. It is slightly more tart than regular tomatoes, and has dark green flesh when ripe.
Black Krim A dark red to brown cultivar often cited online as being from from the “island of Krim” in the Black Sea, better known as the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine (Crimea is known in Ukrainian as Krim).
Japanese Heart shaped tomato with bright red interior.
Black Pear Smokey taste similar to Cherokee Purple
Mexican (Red Calabash) Beefsteak type tomato from Mexico. This is a delicious, thin-skinned heirloom from the state of Chiapas in Mexico.
Canistrino Italian Heirloom tomato. Excellent for sauces.
Brandy Wine The tomato listed as simply “Brandywine” is one of the tomato varieties responsible for the ascendance of the popularity of heirloom varieties due to its excellent flavor and somewhat clouded history. A large fruited pink (red flesh, clear skin) variety produced on vigorous potato leaf foliage plants, Brandywine was passed on from the Sudduth family to a Ohio tomato enthusiast named Ben Quisenberry. Many seed savers traded seeds with Ben, and Brandywine eventually became widely available. Though a variety named “Brandywine” was offered in the late 1800s by the Stokes and Johnson seed company, that appeared to be a red fruited variety with regular leaf foliage. More likely is that Brandywine is a descendant of two similar (if not identical) varieties offered in the 1880’s – Mikado (Henderson seed company) or Turner’s Hybrid (Burpee Seed Company). This is the most well known heirloom variety from the late 1800’s which has an incredibly sweet flavor. Huge sized fruit start out pink and turn slowly red and then slightly purple as they ripen completely.
Hillibilly Orange colored with dark red streaking throughout. Fruits have sweet and fruity flavor with high sugar content and high acidity. Heirloom variety from West Virginia in the 1800’s.
German Stripe This is an old german heirloom variety producing huge boat shaped fruits weighing as much as 2 pounds. Color is golden yellow with pink to red stripes that varies from fruit to fruit. Excellent for slicing.
Polish Linguisa Tomatoes are very sweet and are more productive than most heirloom varieties. These huge sausage shapd tomatoes are excellent for making paste and sauce. A heirloom variety from New York, USA dating back to the 1800’s.
Mortgage Lifter Tomatoes have a sweet rich flavor and turn deep pink when mature. This variety was developed in the 1930’s by Mr. Byles of Logan, WV to help pay off his home mortgage. He crossed a German Johnson, Beefsteak, and Italian & English varieties to come up with this unique variety. Sweet and Tasty, also makes a good roasted tomato.

Other heirlooms

  1. Beauty King – These are beautiful tomatoes that have clearly defined red- and yellow-striped fruit. The flavor is fruity and sweet.
  2. Beauty Queen – Beauty Queen is a prolific producer of small-to-medium-size tomatoes that have clearly defined red and yellow stripes. Terrific flavor.
  3. Big Rainbow – These two-pound tomatoes have green shoulders, a yellow midsection, and neon red streaks running through them. Terrific slicing variety.
  4. Mr. Stripey – This beefsteak type tomato is low in acid so offers mild flavor in a meaty fruit. Its base color is yellow and has red streaks.
  5. Copia – This newer open-pollinated variety that’s an extremely unique-looking tomato. The skin has fine striping of brilliant gold and neon red. The flesh is swirled red and yellow. It’s juicy and flavorful.
  6. Csikos Botermo – Here’s a sweet, cluster tomato that has lovely yellow stripes on red skin. It’s rare and colorful.
  7. Black Krim – This juicy, medium-to-large fruit hails from the Isle of Krim in the Black Sea. It’s a deep purple with green shoulders and has a rich and tangy flavor.
  8. Gajo De Melon – These little pink and yellow marbled cherry tomatoes taste like tomato, melon, and sugar stirred together.
  9. Georgia Streak – This 2 pound, Georgia heirloom is a big beefsteak-type with yellow and red flesh. Its skin is yellow with a red blush. It has a nice flavor.
  10. Gold Medal – This gorgeous variety is predominately yellow but has a rose blush radiating up from the blossom end of the fruit. It’s mild and sweet with very little acid. Makes a great slicing tomato.
  11. Green Zebra – A favorite chef’s variety that’s extremely striking in color with yellow-gold skin and stripes of lime green. It has a rich, sweet flavor that gives just a little bite – excellent taste.
  12. HillBilly (Flame) – This is a 4″ – 6″, yellow, flattened fruit with rose “flames” on its skin and throughout the flesh. It’s been described as meaty, creamy, rich, and sweet. It’s also crack-resistant and makes a gorgeous slicing tomato.
  13. Isis Candy Cherry -This is a sweet and fruity cherry tomato that comes in different shades with blushed patterns on them. Usually, they have a “cat’s eye” at the blossom end.
  14. Marizol Gold – This German heirloom from the 1800s. These are flattened, deeply ribbed, red and gold bicolor tomatoes. It’s a prolific producer with delicious flavor.
  15. Mary Robinson’s German Bicolor – This is a large, yellow fruit with lots of red shading and stripes. It’s sweet and mild in flavor.
  16. Nature’s Riddle -This Russian tomato is golden-yellow with salmon-pink streaks and blushes. It’s sweet-flavored with a meaty texture.
  17. Old German – Southern Exposure Seed Exchange introduced this Mennonite family heirloom in 1985. It has outstanding flavor and its color is yellow with a red center through the whole tomato. The fruits often weigh more than a pound.
  18. Pineapple – This two-pound tomato is beautiful to serve with its yellow skin and red marbling. It has a sweet and fruity flavor.
  19. Plum Tigris – These four-ounce fruits are plum-shaped and have unusual bright red and yellow stripes. It has good flavor.
  20. Red Zebra – This is Green Zebra in a fire-engine-red dress with bright yellow stripes. It’s a sweet tomato full of flavor.
  21. Striped Cavern (Schimmeig Stoo) – These fruits are shaped like bell pepper and have red skin with vibrant yellow stripes. Great stuffing tomato (try it with cheese).
  22. Striped Roman (Speckled Roman) – Striped Roman is an amazing-looking variety that you’ll never recognize as a tomato. The fruit’s unique shape is cylindrical, 3″ x 5″ long, and pointy. Their base color is red, but they have wavy yellow stripes. It’s a meaty and excellent-flavored tomato.
  23. Tigerella – These 2″ round tomatoes are a popular variety from England. It’s an early producer and very prolific even in cool summer areas. Tigerella is dressed in bright red with orange stripes and is disease-resistant.
  24. Turkish Striped Monastery – This 2″ variety is striped red and gold, has great flavor, and is a high producer.
  25. Williams Striped – Williams Striped is a one-pound, beautiful tomato with skin and flesh colors of red and white. The large fruits have luscious flavor.

Heirloom Tomatoes

Ever bemoaned flavourless, shop-bought tomatoes? If Simon Rickard had his way, we’d all be enjoying that big authentic tomato taste from our own backyards – with heirloom varieties. Simon is the author of the brilliant new book, Heirloom Vegetables, A Guide to Their History and Varieties, and has shared his favourite varieties, along with his expert tasting notes, in the October issue of taste.com.au magazine.

(left to right, top row)

1. Green Zebra

A great tomato to grow at home – it is very generous cropping, and birds leave the green fruits alone. How do you know when they are ripe? When they change from apple green to warm golden-green and become soft. A good all-rounder with a zingy, juicy flavour.

Flavour rating: 4

2. Brandywine

Brandywine was once America’s favourite tomato. Its fruits are a pretty pinkish red, very meaty, with a rich, perfectly-balanced flavour. All they need is a good pinch of salt, and down the hatch. To do any more to this tomato is a sin.

Flavour rating: 4

3. Black Russian

This is a Russian heirloom, passed on to the Diggers Club by a seed saver in Gippsland, Victoria. It is mild in flavour, but pleasantly juicy and, like Black Krim, has a slight smokiness. Best eaten fresh, and it needs plenty of salt to enhance its subtle flavour.

Flavour rating: 3.5

4. Schimmeig Creg

Just to prove that you can’t judge books by their cover, this gorgeous-looking tomato is rock-hard and completely tasteless. It’s hollow, like a capsicum, and has been aptly described as an ‘edible box’. It’s ideal for stuffing, holding its shape when cooked. Just don’t bother eating it.

Flavour rating: 1 (ouch!)

(left to right, second row)

5. Black Krim

My desert island tomato! It is meaty, juicy and has a distinctly savoury, smoky bacon flavour which complements its brooding chocolate-violet-olive green colour scheme perfectly. Black Krim is a serious tomato for serious foodies. If that’s you, make sure you grow it.

Flavour rating: 5

6. Aunt Ruby’s German Green

This massive, emerald and lime green tomato has a surprisingly refreshing tang for a beefsteak type. Its flesh is tender and succulent. Slice one into thick steaks, dress with olive oil and torn basil or perilla leaves for an amazing lurid green salad.

Flavour rating: 4

7. Big Rainbow

Big Rainbow looks summery and tropical with its yellow and red marbling. You’ll never see it in the supermarket, because its soft, melting flesh can’t stand up to rough handling. One slice of Big Rainbow is big enough to cover a piece of bread.

Flavour rating: 4

8. Jaune Flamme

Another great all-rounder, Jaune Flamme is an excellent tomato for growing in pots on balconies. It is very reliable and seems to crop forever. The fruits are only the size of an egg, but they have a very big flavour – sweet, tangy and intense. One of my favourites.

Flavour rating: 5

9. Tommy Toe

This cute cherry tomato rates consistently highly in the Diggers Club’s taste tests. The tight-skinned fruits explode in your mouth, filling it with their rich, sweet tomato flavour. A great backyard variety that crops forever. Fill freezer bags with surplus fruit to use over winter.

Flavour rating: 4.5

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