There’s been a lot of buzz lately about “Heirloom Tomatoes.” It seems that every seed company has jumped on this band wagon. Overall, this is a good development because it helps promote diversity in the tomato world and brings the tomato gardener many choices that were not broadly available just a few years ago.
The so-called heirloom varieties are open pollinated plants that have bred true for a long time, generally accepted to be 40 years or more. Hybrid tomato varieties have only been available for the last sixty or so years and they do not breed true. There are many varieties that stray from the round red fruits that we normally associate tomatoes with. These different varieties come from different parts of the country and the world.
Tomatoes originated in South America and had moved to Mexico by the time the Spanish explorers discovered them and brought them back to Europe. From there tomatoes spread to the rest of the world. There are now close to 7,500 varieties from around the world. Tomatoes are the second most popular vegetable (although it’s technically a fruit) behind Potatoes which are from the same family.
With the advent of hybridization and commercial farming, many of the heirlooms fell out of favor, existing only in back yard gardens. Commercial tomatoes were bred to be tougher so that they could handle being picked earlier and withstand the rigors of transportation. Aesthetics were also a big part of commercial breeding resulting in “perfect” tomatoes that were round, blemish free and uniform in size, color, and taste.
Many heirloom tomatoes are downright ugly from that aspect. They are wrinkled and odd shaped. But they do come in a rainbow of colors and in tastes that will suit any palate. The variations in color and taste are the result of genetic mutations caused by human selection and environmental conditions.
A popular anecdote is that the so-called “Mortgage Lifter” tomato was developed by a mechanic with no formal plant breeding education. These tomato plants were so popular that he was able to sell them for $1.00 a piece and was able to quickly pay off his mortgage.
One of the main benefits of growing heirloom tomatoes, other than bragging rights in the neighborhood, is that it’s easy to save the seeds from year to year. This can save the home gardener lots of money.
Saving seeds is easy to do, just follow these simple instructions for saving tomato seeds. Starting your own tomato plants is just as easy. This is where the real savings come in. Prices last year in the garden centers for heirloom tomato plants were $3.50 or more per plant.
One of our favorite sources for unusual heirloom tomatoes is Tomato Fest. You can see their online catalog by clicking on the tomato graphic at the upper right of the page below the header. Wherever you find them, you’ll have fun growing tomatoes that you won’t see at the grocery store and giving your family a taste of what tomatoes used to taste like.