An heirloom tomato
(also called heritage tomato
in the UK
) is an heirloom plant
, an open-pollinated
. 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 prefer the date of 1945 which marks the end of World War II and roughly the beginning of widespread hybrid use by growers and seed companies or industrial agriculture. It was in the 1970s 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. While there are no genetically modified tomatoes available for commercial or home use, it is 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, if regrown, will not be the same as the original hybrid 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.
Some cultivars are:
- Big Rainbow – One of dozens of large fruited yellow tomatoes with red swirls, having a mild, sweet flavor. Hillbilly, below, is another. According to some sources, tomatoes of this color were never sold by American seed companies; their origin is not known.
- Blaby Special – A red fruited cultivar grown in the village of Blaby in Leicestershire until just after World War II. It was the main tomato cultivar supplied through England during the war. The cultivar ceased to be cultivated when the Shoult's Tomato Farm was closed after the war. The cultivar was brought back into cultivation in 2006 as a result of a campaign by Russell Sharp of Lancaster University. It may have resulted from either a mutation or cross-breed of an older cultivar known as Anwell.
- Black Krim – A dark red to brown cultivar often cited in seed catalogs as being from the "island of Krim" in the Black Sea, better known as the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine (Crimea is known in Ukrainian as Krim).
- Brandywine – 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 an 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). Though several other tomatoes (Red Brandywine, Yellow Brandywine, and Black Brandywine) carry the name of "Brandywine" in part, any true relation between them is pure conjecture. In fact, Yellow Brandywine most closely resembles an old Henderson variety only fleetingly available in the 1890's named "Shah". Black Brandywine is a recent introduction of the Tomato Growers Supply Company as a purple fruited result of a cross. Upon release, it was not yet stable, as both potato leaf and regular leaf seedlings appeared from the purchased seed.
- Cherokee Purple – 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". Related to Cherokee Purple are Cherokee Chocolate (which resulted from a clear to yellow skin color single plant mutation of Cherokee Purple in Craig's garden in 1995) and Cherokee Green (which emerged from Cherokee Chocolate, also in Craig's garden, in 1997, and appears to be a flesh color mutation). Both are equally fine flavored, high yielding varieties, but are not strictly heirlooms.
- Green Zebra – Often called an heirloom, it is not. It is an open-pollinated cultivar bred from four heirloom varieties and released by Tom Wagner of Lancaster, Kansas in 1983.
- Hillbilly – See Big Rainbow, above. It is known in regular leaf and potato leaf forms.
- Jubilee – A heavy yielding, golden fruit. Released by Burpee Seed Co. in 1943.
- Lillian's Yellow Heirloom - This wonderful, unique variety was collected some years ago by Lillian Bruce of Tennessee. Lillian passed the seed on to Robert Richardson, after which it found its way into the Seed Savers Exchange yearbook and became widely traded, and is now commercially available from a number of seed companies. One of the few bright yellow fruited varieties, and the only one with potato leaf foliage, this is a delicious, full flavored tomato that is very meaty, with few seeds. It tends to be a late season variety.
- Mortgage Lifter – One of the more famous heirlooms due to its fanciful history, described in great detail in the catalog of the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange company. The enormous pink tomatoes are sweet and tasty.
- Traveler, syn. Arkansas Traveler – An open pollinated pink tomato in the 6 ounce range. Another cultivar commonly referred to as an heirloom, although by most definitions it is technically not. Released by the University of Arkansas in 1970.
A number of Soviet tomato varieties have been incorrectly referred to as heirlooms in North America. When U.S. and Canadian seed collectors travelled to the USSR (now CIS) during the 1980's and 1990's, some of them originally thought that the tomato strains they collected were heirlooms, developed and preserved by the common people over many decades or centuries. It has since been learned that most of these varieties were actually developed by USSR plant breeding laboratories after the Second World War, and are not true heirlooms.