What Makes it an Heirloom?

sliced heirloom tomatoes

Sliced heirloom tomatoes

Ever wonder why certain tomatoes are called heirloom while others aren’t. You can look to the definition of the word heirloom, “A valued possession passed down in a family through succeeding generations.”, for the answer.

heirlooms at the farmers market

Heirloom tomatoes being sold at the Sacramento Farmers’ Market grown by Lawrence Farms in Oroville, CA.

Heirlooms are grown from seeds that have been collected, saved and passed down through generations. Every heirloom tomato variety is genetically unique and inherent in this uniqueness is an adaptation to specific growing conditions and climates.

Black Cherry tomatoes

Black cherry heirloom tomatoes growing in a pot in my backyard. These are larger than the typical cherry tomatoes you might think of and when fully ripe, dark in color like the Cherokee.

Supermarket hybrid tomatoes, on the other hand, have been carefully crossbred to produce characteristics like; resistance to pests and diseases and firm flesh and thick skin so they can be machine harvested. Most hybrids are harvested while green and are ripened to redness with ethylene gas.

Abraham Lincoln heirloom

The other heirloom I’m growing this year is Abraham Lincoln. It’s medium in size and will be bright red when fully ripened. I can hardly wait to try this one.

Heirlooms often produce less fruit per plant and when grown organically they are more susceptible to fungus which can make them crack and split.They also tend to be soft skinned requiring hand harvesting. Heirloom crop yields tend to be one-third or less that of hybrid tomato crops. So, more labor to produce them and less production due to their genetic makeup, in most cases, equals higher prices when we buy them. But, if you grow them yourself you still might have the disease problems inherent in the variety you try but you’ll probably get more than enough delicious tomatoes to make you smile for the summer and you can save some seeds to use next season. I’d call that a win, win.

grilled cheese with tomato and basil

Grilled Gruyere cheese sandwich with sliced heirloom tomatoes and fresh basil leaves on a seeded wheat bread. The perfect lunch for an atypical rainy California summer day.

For me the test for any tomato is taste. If it looks perfect but doesn’t taste like a tomato, what’s the point in eating it? Give me a heirloom that is raised locally and allowed to ripen on the vine. That’s what I call a tomato. Oh, one more thing – Please, please don’t put your tomatoes in the fridge. It just kills their flavor.


7 thoughts on “What Makes it an Heirloom?

    • Wow, a dozen plants. Way too many for my tiny yard and single consumption. What do you do with your bountiful harvest? Can? Freeze? Dry?
      The guy who was selling at the Farmers Market had so many varieties and they all looked beautiful. His farm is located about an hr and a half north of Sacramento and its hotter up there that’s why he has so many varieties producing already. Really glad, cuz I’m happy to buy from him and enjoy his fruitful bounty till mine ripen.

      • Well, we bought some and then our neighbor who is an extraordinary gardener gave us some that she started from seed. We will most likely make a lot of tomato sauce later on in the summer. Tomatoes and cantaloupe make my summer!

    • No GMO’s is a HUGE plus. The cherry tomato has some kind of a fungus that in common in that variety but so far the plant seems to be able to bloom and set fruit and look fairly healthy. I’ve just been cutting off and getting rid of the infected leaves. The fruit looks incredible. Can’t wait to taste it. Love the really dark tomatoes. Hope your plants do well and that you too will be enjoying a tomato sandwich, toasted or otherwise, soon!

  1. Hi, great post! I just wanted to point out that most tomatoes are self pollinating. They do not need the help of bees or wind to pollinate. All tomato varieties aside from the potato leafed, currant, and double blossomed beefsteak, have a style that is completely retracted inside the anther tube. This means that the plants cannot cross pollinate, which is why you can save seeds from most heirloom and non-hybrid varieties without worrying that you will get a new and different tomato variety from your saved seeds!! Which is pretty cool in my book!

    Hybrid tomatoes need to be hand pollinated because they are hybrids. If you save the seeds from a hybrid you will get a different variety because their genes have not stabilized. They are created by crossing different stable tomato varieties, through hand pollination. Hand pollination ensures that they know what type of tomato will grow from the seed.

    I learned a lot of this recently and thought it was pretty cool, so I thought I would share! Good luck with your heirlooms! I can’t wait until tomato season!

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