What Is So Special About Heirloom Tomatoes? (The Pros Know)


If you have been gardening for a while, you have probably heard of heirloom tomatoes.  If you are wondering what makes them so special, you are not alone.  Many people want to know how heirloom tomatoes differ from hybrid tomatoes, whether they are genetically modified, and why they are so expensive.

So, what is so special about heirloom tomatoes?  Heirloom tomatoes are special because they taste better than hybrid tomato varieties.  Heirloom tomatoes also “breed true”, meaning that the seeds can be saved to grow more of the same tomatoes year after year.  Heirloom tomatoes are expensive because they are not as prolific as hybrids, and they do not ship or store well.

What Is So Special About Heirloom Tomatoes?

The seeds from heirloom tomatoes (also called heritage tomatoes) have been selected over many years for desirable traits, such as size, color, and taste.  They are open-pollinated, meaning that bees, moths, birds, bats, wind, or rain pollinate the tomato flowers.

tomato flowers
To get heirloom seeds, the flowers of a tomato plant must be open-pollinated (pollinated by bees, moths, birds, etc.)

For example, a gardener might choose to save seeds from only the largest tomatoes he can grow each year.  Over time, the average size of his tomato crop gets larger, since he is “selecting out” the plants that produce smaller tomatoes.

If the gardener passes these seeds on to his children, and the next generation continues the process, they can create even larger tomatoes.  Eventually, they will end up with an heirloom variety that can produce tomatoes weighing 1 pound (454 grams) or more.

Compare this with hybrid tomato seeds, which have been selectively bred (cross-pollinated) from two parent plants with desired traits. For more information, check out my article on the pros and cons of hybrid seeds.

So why does this difference in breeding and pollination make heirloom tomatoes so special?

Heirloom Tomatoes Taste Better Than Hybrid Tomatoes

These days, many hybrid tomatoes are bred for traits such as high yield, disease resistance, and the ability to ship and store well.  This decreases costs for farmers and consumers, and minimizes waste due to spoiled produce.

heirloom tomato
You won’t find heirloom tomatoes with interesting shapes and colors at your typical grocery store.

However, this cost savings and efficiency comes at the expense of flavor.  When you cross two tomato plants to make the offspring disease resistant or highly productive, you may also lose other traits, such as rich flavor.

This is exactly what has happened to many hybrid tomato varieties: they have lost some of the sugar and nutrient content that makes heirloom tomatoes taste sweeter and juicier.

Heirloom Tomatoes Breed True

Another important thing to keep in mind is that heirloom tomato plants breed true.  This means that if you save the seeds from an heirloom tomato and plant them, the result will be a plant similar to the parent plant.

tomato seeds in tomato
If you save the seeds from your heirloom tomatoes and plant them, you will most likely get a plant just like the parent plant, and you will produce similar fruit year after year.

This is not true for hybrid seeds!  Hybrid seeds do not always breed true, so you may end up with offspring that resemble one of the “grandparent” plants, or another plant entirely.

Of course, this assumes that the seeds grow at all – in some cases, the seed will be sterile (unable to germinate and grow into plants).  This means that farmers and gardeners have to keep buying hybrid seeds year after year from seed companies to get the same hybrid plants that they want.

Why Do They Call Them Heirloom Tomatoes?

Heirloom tomatoes are so named because they are passed down from one generation to the next, like a family heirloom (such as a piece of jewelry, a watch, etc.).

Heirloom tomatoes are generally at least 50 years old, and come from open-pollinated plants (that is, they are not hybrid or genetically modified).  Many people believe it is important to keep these heirloom varieties alive to preserve the genetic diversity of plants.

For more information, check out this article on heirloom tomatoes from Wikipedia.

beefsteak tomatoes
Heirloom tomatoes often have an irregular shape, and are not bred for disease resistance the way some hybrid tomatoes are.

Farmers and gardeners will often pass heirloom tomato seeds to their children.  You can also find heirloom seeds at a seed swap or seed exchange.

At these events, farmers and gardeners meet to exchange seeds, including heirloom varieties that have been in the family for over 50 years (some are over 200 years old!)

For more information, check out this article from Wikipedia on seed swaps.

Finding heirloom seeds at seed swaps also helps farmers and gardeners to find new varieties of plants to grow and to cultivate their own favorite varieties over time.

Are Heirloom Tomatoes Genetically Modified?

No, heirloom tomatoes are not genetically modified (that is, an heirloom tomato or plant is not a GMO).  Here is the difference between heirloom, hybrid, and genetically modified tomatoes.

Heirloom Tomatoes

An heirloom tomato variety has generally been passed down from farmer to farmer for at least 50 years.

These varieties have been bred only by open-pollination during that time.

The DNA of heirloom seeds has not been genetically modified in a laboratory.

For more information, check out my article on the difference between heirloom and organic seeds.

Hybrid Tomatoes

A hybrid tomato variety has been selectively bred by cross-pollination of two parent plants that have desired traits.

These varieties are often created at universities or seed companies to fulfill certain requirements, such as high yield, disease resistance, thick skins for good storage, etc.

Hybrid tomatoes are sometimes bred for high productivity, but this can come at the expense of flavor.

Generally speaking, hybrid tomatoes are also non-GMO crops, since selective cross-pollination does not involve gene splicing or making artificial changes to the DNA of a plant.

Genetically Modified Tomatoes

A genetically modified (GM) tomato has had its DNA altered in a laboratory.

As with hybrid tomatoes, this is due to a desire to create certain traits in the plant, such as disease resistance or lack of seeds.

However, editing DNA directly is a much faster route to creating a plant with these traits, and so much of the trial and error of cross-pollination is avoided.

If you have an heirloom or hybrid tomato variety in your garden and it is pollinated with a GM tomato variety, then the offspring would have some of the traits and genes from the GM tomato.  However, the only way this can happen is if you (or someone near you) are growing GM tomatoes.

Why Are Heirloom Tomatoes So Expensive?

There are two main reasons that heirloom tomatoes are so expensive.  First, heirloom tomatoes produce a much lower yield per acre than hybrid tomatoes.  Second, heirloom tomatoes are more difficult to ship and store than hybrid tomatoes.

Heirloom Tomatoes Produce A Lower Yield Per Acre

There are several drawbacks to growing heirloom tomatoes that decrease their yield per acre, making them more expensive to buy.

Cherokee Purple Tomatoes
Heirloom tomatoes can be quite large, but they are often not as productive as hybrid tomatoes bred to produce high yields. Image from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tomato_%27Cherokee_Purple%27_(Lycopersicon_lycopersicum).jpg

First of all, heirloom tomatoes are not bred for high productivity, so they will not produce as much fruit per plant as hybrid varieties bred for high yields.

Second, heirloom tomatoes are not bred for disease resistance, so more heirloom tomato plants will succumb to diseases than their more resistant hybrid cousins.

Finally, heirloom tomatoes are more costly to harvest than hybrid tomatoes.  Hybrid tomatoes are bred to have thicker skin, so they are easier to harvest without damaging them.

With heirloom tomatoes, growers have two choices when harvesting.  They can harvest mechanically and lose some produce due to rough handling by the machines.  Or, they can hire people to pick the tomatoes, which also increases costs, since it is slower, and these pickers must be paid for their effort.

As a result, fewer heirloom tomatoes will get to market from each available acre than hybrid tomatoes.

Heirloom Tomatoes Are More Difficult To Ship And Store

Once harvested, heirloom tomatoes are also more difficult to ship and store than hybrid tomatoes.

First of all, heirloom tomatoes often lack uniform shape and size, which makes them difficult to package and transport.

Brandywine tomato plant
Heirloom tomatoes with an irregular shape are difficult to package and store for long trips across the country.

Second, heirloom tomatoes have thinner skins than hybrid tomatoes.  This makes it more difficult to transport them safely, even if you do manage to package them successfully.

Finally, heirloom tomatoes have a brief shelf life, since they are not bred for longevity as some hybrid tomatoes are.

All of this makes it more difficult – and more expensive – to transport heirloom tomatoes quickly enough and in good enough condition to stock them in stores.

What Is The Best Heirloom Tomato To Grow?

There are many different heirloom varieties of tomatoes that you can choose from.  Depending on what you prefer (larger size, interesting colors, etc.), you can find an heirloom tomato that is right for you.

Here are a few heirloom tomatoes that you might find interesting.

  • San Marzano Tomato – this paste tomato has long red fruit, weighing 4 ounces, and is good for paste and canning.  This variety is indeterminate, with a height of 40 to 48 inches and a spread of 18 inches.  It grows to maturity in 80 days.  For more information, check out the San Marzano tomato on the Burpee website.
  • Cherokee Purple Tomato – this beefsteak tomato has large purple fruit, weighing 13 ounces, and is good for slicing.  This variety is indeterminate, with a height of 36 to 40 inches and a spread of 18 inches.  It grows to maturity in 85 days.  For more information, check out the Cherokee Purple tomato on the Burpee website.
  • Brandywine Pink Tomato – this beefsteak tomato has large pink fruit, weighing 14 ounces, and is good for slicing.  This variety is indeterminate, with a height of 40 to 48 inches and a spread of 18 inches.  It grows to maturity in 85 days.  For more information, check out the Brandywine Pink tomato on the Burpee website.
  • Big Rainbow Tomato – this beefsteak tomato has marbled red and yellow fruit, weighing 16 ounces, and is good for slicing.  This variety is indeterminate, with a height of 36 to 40 inches and a spread of 18 inches.  It grows to maturity in 85 days.  For more information, check out the Big Rainbow tomato on the Burpee website.
  • Yellow Pear Tomato – this pear tomato has small, pear-shaped yellow fruit, weighing 4 ounces, and is good for snacking.  This variety is indeterminate, with a height of 60 to 72 inches and a spread of 24 to 36 inches.  It grows to maturity in 75 days.  For more information, check out the Yellow Pear tomato on the Burpee website.
  • Black Krim Tomato – this beefsteak tomato has large dark maroon fruit, weighing 8 ounces, and is good for slicing.  This variety is indeterminate, with a height of 36 to 40 inches and a spread of 18 inches.  It grows to maturity in 80 days.  For more information, check out the Black Krim tomato on the Burpee website.

Conclusion

By now, you have a much better idea of why heirloom tomatoes are so special, and why people prefer them to hybrid tomato varieties.  You also know how to harvest heirloom tomato seeds and which variety to grow depending on your preferences.

I hope you found this article helpful – if so, please share it with someone who can use the information.  If you have any questions about heirloom tomatoes, please leave a comment below.

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jonathon. I’m the gardening guy (not guru!) who is encouraging everyone to spend more time in the garden. I try to help solve common gardening problems so that you can get the best harvest every year!

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