A Primer on Heirloom Tomatoes

By: Shaan Fye, Executive Director

Heirloom Tomatoes have had a meteoric rise in the past few years.  From cooking shows to Whole Foods, the oddly-shaped colorful fruits have become the next trend in gardening.  A lot of people may recognize what a heirloom tomato is based on appearance, but most have no clue what the actual difference is, and whether the higher price is justified.  Let’s begin with the definition.

Heirloom Tomatoes are generally considered to be tomatoes that have not been crossbred for 5o years, meaning that hybrids such as the “Big Boy” are not included.  These purebred tomatoes are either considered to be commercial, family, created, or mystery, but basically all are defined by their lack of cross-pollination with other species.  So what makes a purebred tomato different?

Heirloom plants generally are lower-yield than their hybrid counterparts, with some gardeners claiming only two fruits per plant is normal for a heirloom variety plant.  Additionally, the fruit is prone to cracking and splitting, a product of the weaker anti-fungal genes and odd shapes.  This is why commercial growers phased out these plants in the 1940s in favor of a variety similar to today’s supermarket tomatoes, characterized by their uniformly red and tougher skin. Unfortunately, in the process, the genes responsible for great flavor were minimized, reducing a tomato’s complex taste.

This is what led to the recent resurgence of heirloom tomatoes.  Heirlooms, lacking the genetic unity of commercial hybrids, are much more likely to contain the genes necessary for great taste.  Although the genes argument has come under dispute by Scientific American, the less productive heirloom tomato plant combined with better care still leads to a better tasting tomato.  Additionally, it is hard to deny the “coolness” factor of heirlooms, considering the colors and flavors are incredibly unique and make for great food art, especially in Caprese salads.  Heirlooms bring fun back into tomato cultivation, ending the monotony of the red ball-shaped fruit.

So are heirlooms it worth it?  It honestly depends.  If you are in the position to go to a specialty market or high end grocery store to spend about triple the price of normal tomatoes, then the taste and shape may be enough to justify the price.  If you are on a tight budget, don’t worry.  Heirloom tomatoes are all the rage right now, but they aren’t necessary to be healthy.  Normal tomatoes do the job, and last longer as well.


A Primer on Heirloom Tomatoes

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