We get orders for heirloom tomatoes a number of times each season here at Sofresh, and I always find them intriguing to look at when they arrive at our warehouse (ie. a quick quality check in the chiller room). They’re pretty and at the same time a little strange looking in a fascinating sort of way. They’re colourful and odd-shaped, even a little distorted. And they’re distinctly un-uniformed in size, unlike the common red/orangey all-roundish ones commonly found in stores. So what’s the deal with heirloom – a.k.a. heritage – tomatoes, really?
First off, what are heirloom tomatoes? They’re open-pollinated (or “true breed”) tomatoes. But note this tricky bit of trivia: while all heirloom varieties are open-pollinated, not all open-pollinated varieties are heirloom varieties. Tongue-twister aside, open-pollination means that when heirloom tomato varieties self-pollinate or are pollinated by other tomatoes, the resulting tomato seeds produce future tomato plants which are identical to the parent varieties. Put simply, heirloom tomatoes are not commercial hybrid tomatoes (ie. the common red/orangey roundish ones). Put crudely, heirlooms are “in-bred” tomatoes (hence their odd looks?).
Another way to understand this non-conforming variety of vegetable is that an heirloom is a variety that has been passed down through generations of an original family. Why is this done? Because of certain characteristics – such as size, shape, colour, stripes, patterns, a unique taste, or some desirable oddity – that someone had wanted to preserve and reproduce consistently. In the world of golf or tennis, when a piece of equipment is tagged “non-conforming” it usually becomes very desired, because it gives the player wielding it an extraordinary (and illegal) level of performance: banned on tour, lauded every weekend by hackers-and-swingers otherwise!
Back in the world of tomatoes, the non-conforming heirloom varieties too are very desired, and consumer demand for them has grown quickly in the last few years. According to tomato experts Craig LeHoullier and Carolyn Male, there are four categories of heirlooms:
- Commercial heirlooms – open-pollinated varieties introduced before 1940 (ie. tomato varieties which have been around for over 50 years)
- Family heirlooms – seeds passed down for generations in a family
- Created heirlooms – cross-breeding two heirloom varieties (or an heirloom with a hybrid) and further de-hybridising the resulting tomato seeds over time, until the new heirloom variety’s desired characteristics are consistently reproduceable
- Mystery heirlooms – varieties that are a product of natural cross-pollination of other heirlooms
Heirloom tomatoes probably got their start as food typically grown by family gardeners and small farms. Over time, quite a number of heirloom varieties have been lost along with many of the small family owned-and-operated farms that cultivated them. They were replaced by commercial hybrid tomatoes for reasons such as production volume, attractiveness of the red/orangey skin (ie. what a tomato should look like today), uniformity of size and thus ease of harvesting and packaging, and a host of other commercially rational reasons.
Which is a bit sad, really. Because each heirloom tomato variety is genetically unique, so in this respect it’s fair to say that the genetic diversity of food today is eroded or depleted to some extent. This is cause for alarm in some camps of food scientists, who argue that the inherent importance of having a wide genetic diversity of food is to hedge against risks like plant epidemics, unfavourable growing conditions and climates, and pest infestations that threaten food production worldwide. Who knew? Behind the many cartons of cute-looking heirloom tomatoes that we deliver to our cruise ship clients lay such impactful science and potential global ramification.
Another thing is that heirloom tomatoes don’t have the genetic mutation that commerical hybrid tomatoes do, that gives the latter their attractive uniform red/orangey colour. But the price for this vanity is the quality of taste: heirloom tomatoes are sweeter. That’s because without this genetic mutation, heirloom tomatoes are better able to manufacture healthy, natural sugars within themselves.
If you encounter an heirloom tomato variety that you like the look or taste of, and you want to reproduce it for yourself at home, how would you do it?
The good news is that it’s apparently easy to do so! Firstly, you’ll already have nature on your side: almost all seeds will continue to show the traits (that you had liked in the first place) of the original seed, because heirloom tomatoes almost always self-pollinate. So, all you’ve got to do is collect the seeds of the heirloom tomato varieties you like, and plant them – voila!
Here’s more good news: seeds are easy to collect! Chop or mash the heirloom tomato into a jar (up to half-full), fill the rest of the jar with water. Shake the jar every now and then while allowing the tomato to decompose (up to a week), until the seeds sink to the bottom of the jar. Be patient while the tomato is decomposing, because it’s an important process that stops the transmission of disease to the seeds. Remove the seeds, rinse them clean, and allow to dry (this promotes germination). Then, it’s up to your green-thumbs to get to work!
If after reading this article you decide to give it a go, I’d be keen to know how your experience of the process went, and how good (or not) a harvest you were able to achieve. So please check back in and post your comments then. And if you have any tips to share with other readers and myself, that’d be fantastic (and thanks in advance)!
And who knows, you could be on your way to cultivating your very own family heirloom tomatoes to pass down to the generations to come. Wishing you success and happy heirlooming!