I am frequently asked my opinion of heirloom tomatoes. In general, I have found this topic is confusing to gardeners and deserves some attention and explanation. Some people appear to be working under an erroneous assumption about what an "heirloom tomato" is. I will attempt to clarify as much as possible, but definitions vary from place-to-place.
First, "heirloom tomato" is not a single variety of tomato you can go to the Co-op or garden center and ask for by that name alone. Second, the term "heirloom tomatoes" is used to describe a number of varieties whose seeds have been passed down from generation to generation all over the world.
Heirloom varieties are not hybrids like many modern varieties. Typically, they are open-pollinated and have been around for at least 50 years as stable-named varieties. Open-pollinated means they come back true-from-seed and look and taste like the original. They often come back true-to-the-parent even when near other tomatoes, because they don’t cross pollinate easily. This trait allowed these tomatoes to be passed down over long periods of time relatively unchanged. There are many "new" (to America) heirloom varieties coming from Eastern European countries since the fall of the Iron Curtain. They were saved over multiple generations in their respective countries and are just now getting wider distribution.
Heirloom tomatoes have become more popular as people seek out better and unique flavors. They come in many colors, shapes and sizes that are grown both for flavor and some particular novelty such as unusual shapes or color. Oftentimes, their history or uniqueness is reflected in their name. For example, Jeff Davis is an old Alabama heirloom variety originating here in the late 1800s and Brandywine is a popular heirloom variety originating in Chester County, Penn., where it was named for Brandywine Creek. Some varieties have interesting stories behind their names such as Mortgage Lifter. The story goes that a West Virginian who fell on hard times during the Great Depression selected out this very large fruited variety and sold enough plants over a 4-year period to pay off his home mortgage. In Cullman, where I live, many people are familiar with German Johnson or German Pink due to the German heritage of the community.
Arnold Caylor, director of the North Alabama Horticulture Research station in Cullman, said they have looked at several heirloom varieties in the past few years. In general, they found most varieties were more prone to disease, fruit rots and fruit cracking than newer varieties and yields were less than most hybrids, but there were some interesting and good tasting fruit. He said he would continue to grow two varieties called Mexico and Azoychka in his personal garden. Mexico produces a large, meaty, dark-pink fruit that is good fresh and for cooking. Azoychka is a Russian variety producing early, medium-sized fruit with a yellow color and a hint of citrus flavor.
I asked Cullman County farmer Trent Boyd, who grows many heirloom varieties, for his advice.
"I like Brandywine Sudduth, Cherokee Purple and Azoychka. Heirlooms, as a rule, do not set fruit well in extremely hot weather so try to start from transplants as early as the weather allows," Boyd said.
He also told me his biggest challenges are heat and humidity since many heirlooms come from more temperate climates. The variety mentioned earlier called Mexico sets better in the heat than others for Trent. Another variety from South of the Border called Zapotec is also likely to be more heat tolerant considering its origin.
Finding plant sources of heirloom varieties is challenging, but their recent popularity is increasing their availability. Check with your local Quality Co-op or other quality plant distributor. However, don’t expect retailers to handle all of these obscure varieties because there are way too many to grow them all. If you want to try a particularly unusual or rare variety, you will need to plan ahead and possibly grow your own plants from seed.
This year, I will be working with Caylor on a grafted tomato project. We have grafted some of the available strains of the variety Brandywine onto a disease-resistant rootstock called Maxifort. The idea behind this effort is to take advantage of the vigorous and disease-resistant rootstock, and increase the production of the great tasting Brandywines that have poorer vigor and less disease resistance.
I will let you know how that project turns out in a later article.
Tony A. Glover is a County Extension Coordinator in Cullman County.