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Heirloom Tomatoes: The Next Generation

Kate can't resist a garden center.

A trip to CostCo. to use a coupon for printer toner for me ended up with a sharp left into the garden center. Before I could say, "Whoaaaaaa . . . " Kate was cradling a pack of three gallons of heirloom tomatoes and crooning to it.
Last year we planted the common tomatoes that I remember from the Oklahoma summers of my childhood -- round, regular and red. Better Boy, Big Beef -- who knows what the plants' marketing names were.

The tomatoes that Kate fell in love with are labeled heirlooms* -- Shady Lady, Bobcat and Monica.

I've always loved the concept of heirlooms.  These are tomatoes that have pollinated in a natural way in an open garden. The gardeners who originally grew them, selected their seeds for specific desirable characteristics -- color of the fruit, flavor, disease resistance, productivity, etc. They often share the seeds with others. An heirloom tomato seed can easily have a documented provenance, just like a work of art.

According to Gary Ibsen's TomatoFest, the seeds of an heirloom tomato plant may be passed down through several generations of a family (hence the name -- heirloom, or in the United Kingdom, heritage).

Ibsen describes several groupings of heirlooms:
  • Commercial: open-pollinated types introduced before 1940 or which have been grown for more than 50 years
  • Family: a type of tomato grown by a family that has passed the seeds down through the generations
  • Created: tomatoes developed by crossing two heirlooms or an heirloom and a hybrid and dehybridizing the seeds for as many generations as it takes to get rid of the unwanted characteristics and stabilized the desired ones.  This could take as long as eight years or more.
  • Mystery: the "mutts" of the tomato world that have arisen from naturally cross-pollinated varieties of heirlooms.

Because of their origins, some heirlooms come with wonderful stories about their origins. They also have wonderful names: the brownish red Cherokee Purple; the tart green and yellow striped Green Zebras; Mortgage Lifter developed by M.C. Byles in the 1940s and helped him pay off his mortgage; Mr. Stripey; Brandywine, a large, pink, flavorful tomato; Big Rainbow; and the Blaby Special, which was grown in the Leicestershire village of Blaby  and fed England through World War II.

The more I learn about heirlooms, the more I think our prolific volunteer yellow tomato is an heirloom: a Yellow Pear perhaps or a Yellow Plum. Yellow Pears were documented prior to 1800 and are typically the last tomatoes living in a garden -- certainly in ours. Yellow Plums are very old as well.

Why Heirlooms Matter
As small family farms have gone out of business, many of these family-developed heirloom varieties of tomatoes have been lost. Long distance shipping and the desire for tomatoes that survive rough handling and look pretty, among other factors, have greatly narrowed the varieties of tomatoes that are acceptable commercially.

Every time an heirloom plant disappears, we lose unique genetic material. The more dependent we become on fewer varieties of plants, the greater our vulnerability to plant epidemics and pest infestations. (Just think back to the potato famines in Ireland . . .) Ibsen calls this "genetic erosion."

A Growing Glossary For Understanding Heirlooms

Hybrid - First generation offspring of two distant and distinct parental lines of the same species. Hybrid seeds may be sterile or fail to breed true (expressing the desirable traits of the parent plants). This helped build the commercial seed industry because new seeds are needed each season. It also contributed to death of the practice of farmers and gardeners saving seeds from one crop to plant the next season. Hybrids generally are bred to create high yields, but achieving this often requires heavy dependence on fertilizers, pesticides and lots of water.

Open-pollinated - Plants that are pollinated naturally by bees, birds, butterflies, insects, animals, water or wind. The seeds of open pollinated plants will grow when planted and will be true to the parent plants. They grow well under organic conditions without a lot of added resources. Seeds produced by open pollination are subject to mutation and adapt to local ecosystems. They tend to have better flavor and a better ability to resist disease and pests. There's little incentive for commercial breeders to develop new forms of open-pollinated plants because the gardener/farmer can simply harvest the seeds for the next year's planting

* I must note that there's a big debate on some online garden forums whether these are heirloom tomatoes are not. I don't know how to get to the truth of the matter, except to find out if the seeds can be used to grow new plants next year.

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