What is the big deal about heirloom tomatoes? Hasn’t modern science brought us big improvements with hybrids that are bigger fruiting, higher yielding, resistant to many diseases and low in acid and high in vitamins? Yes, there are many hybrids that do boast these benefits. However the varieties that have earned the designation of “heirloom” have been treasured and saved through many years of growing and eating. Presumably they have endured for two main reasons: the success of the plants through many varying seasons and locations, and the big reason, FLAVOR. It was probably in reference to heirloom tomatoes that the song was written “Only two things that money can’t buy: true love and home-grown tomatoes.” There is something about that genuine tomato flavor that has made the tomato America’s most popular vegetable, and the tomatoes in the supermarkets don’t even come close.
Heirloom varieties differ from hybrids genetically because they come true from seed. If a hybrid is grown in isolation from other varieties and the seed is saved, 25% will be one of its parents, 25% will be like the other parent and only 50% will be like the variety grown. However heirloom varieties are open-pollinated, that is, if they are grown in isolation from other varieties, they will produce seed that is 100% like themselves. Thus for over a hundred years, humans have saved the seed from the biggest, tastiest and most successful tomatoes. These varieties have been selected, therefore, to endure various weather conditions, diseases, insects, soils, and to produce the best qualities and quantities of fruit. Whereas a big company might reject a variety that had a great flavor, but had ugly fruit or a sloppy habit, home gardeners might keep that variety going for generations.
A good example of this is the famous heirloom tomato ‘Brandywine’. It has large fruits, which are deeply lobed, purplish red and are tender and juicy. It needs a fairly long season (85 days), but has a renowned flavor. It has been saved since 1889 even though it can be rather ugly, requiring possibly cooler conditions, may not be very productive and is quite sprawling.
Another great heirloom is ‘Pruden’s Purple’. It requires only 75 days to ripen and is large, up to 4” wide. The color isn’t truly purple, but is a rich pink, and there are occasional misshapen fruits. However the skin doesn’t crack and the flavor is outstanding. One of my customers calls me every December to make sure I am growing it, and unfortunately I rarely get a lot of plants to germinate.
‘Rutgers’ is variety that was bred in 1928 and has been very popular ever since. It bears medium sized, bright red solid fruits with a very good flavor. It produces heavily, has resistance to wilt and tolerance to drought. This one has done well in my often-neglected vegetable garden.
Luther Burbank has his name on an heirloom tomato from 1915 ‘Burbank Slicing’. It is fairly early, yielding heavy crops of 3”-4” fruits of a deep red color, and having a very good flavor which is especially good for canning. A musician friend of mine, not known for his domestic prowess, sent me home with a pint of ‘Burbank Slicing’ tomatoes he had canned. I opened the jar for a taste, and couldn’t stop tasting until I’d eaten them all.
A very early (65 days) cherry tomato called ‘Koralik’ is a Russian heirloom. It produces copious clusters of 1” bright red fruits and the flavor is excellent both fresh and dried. I tried this one last year and was very pleased.
And other heirloom tomatoes are good for drying. ‘Principe Borghese’ is an Italian cherry tomato that is famous for drying. The whole plant ripens at once and can be pulled up and hung over a fence to dry in the sun. And ‘Amish Paste’ makes a good dried tomato, but is even better cooked. It has acorn to heart-shaped fruits, which are very meaty and have few seeds. The rich flavor intensifies with cooking. This variety has proved very successful and productive in our area. A taste-test carried out by a big gardening magazine found this variety to be the only one to excel in flavor and texture whether fresh, dried, cooked or canned.
Other enduring heirlooms are: ‘Purple Calabash’-“These ugly little tomatoes are the tastiest I have ever encountered”, said one grower from California. They are supposed to be very productive and drought tolerant.
‘Yellow Pear’ is a cherry tomato that has mild flavored, low-acid clusters of fruits, which are sweet, pretty in salads and popular with children. ‘Mortgage Lifter’ with outstanding flavor and high yields is said to have saved a family farm during the depression.
And of course there are many, many more. Dr. Carolyn Male has written a 246-page book on the subject 100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden.
Copyright Mikl Brawner 2019