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Plain as Dirt: Truth about heirloom tomatoes

Tom Glass
Tom Glass
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Browse the produce section of local grocery stores, and among the large displays of firm, round, ripe red tomatoes, you’ll often find a puny display selling some sickly-looking, flattened, chartreuse-streaked, bruised-purple and muddy-green orbs called heirloom tomatoes. They don’t exactly scream “tasty tomato” by today’s tomato standards.

If you judge tomatoes based on the brightness of their red color, smooth skin, uniformity in size and roundness and a slight squeeze to test their firmness, you’re probably not the target market for heirloom-tomato growers.

Most heirloom tomatoes won’t pass any of those tests. Heirloom tomatoes typically are as soft as warm brie cheese and just plain ugly to the eye of the average tomato consumer today. That’s too bad. Taste an heirloom tomato, and you’ll find out what you’ve been missing. The difference in flavor is as large as the differences between fine wines and fortified wines. Flavors of heirloom tomatoes are complex and subtle.



Current tomato breeding has done a great job of making tomatoes cheaply available all year. What hasn’t been done is flavor enhancement. My father railed, weekly, that modern grocery-store tomatoes tasted like tennis balls. Not having tasted a tennis ball and, personally, loving the new-bounce smell from a freshly opened can, I’m not sure they’re quite that bad.

But I do know that a lot of the breeding efforts directed at tomatoes are aimed at making tomatoes ship as well as canned tennis balls ” which makes it almost impossible to enhance their flavor.



In order to achieve good shipping characteristics, breeders build in a lot of firm, meaty flesh that tastes like cellulose (which is what it is) pulp ” the stuff of cardboard, which is kind of tasteless.

Heirloom tomatoes derive their name from the fact that the seeds from these varieties have been saved for generations. The obvious driving motivation for that initiative is flavor. And the flavor is in that gelatinous stuff surrounding the seeds. That’s why heirlooms tend to be soft ” they possess a higher percentage of that gelatinous stuff in relation to pulp. Consequently, they don’t ship well. Furthermore, the skin on heirlooms tends to be thin. They bruise and crack easily.

In a more arcane vein, heirloom tomatoes are by definition “OP” ” open pollinated ” which is why it is possible to save these varieties from one generation to the next. If one were to plant a field of OP tomatoes on an island void of tomatoes in the middle of the ocean, the resulting seeds will produce plants and fruits true to the parent variety.



On the other hand, plant a field of modern hybrid tomatoes on an island, and the resulting seeds will produce a predictably small fraction of plants true to the parents. Sorting that percentage of true-to-type plants requires growing the next crop to fruition ” which is going to require a much bigger island and a lot more time.

Consider heirloom tomatoes to be thoroughbreds. And they possess the same problems that come with breeding thoroughbreds. You get the equivalent of half-wits, hemophilia and ankles too thin to go the distance. In the case of heirloom tomatoes, they tend to be susceptible to diseases.

Read the specs of a tomato variety on a seed packet, and you’ll see “VFNT,” or some combination of those letters, often printed on the packet. This little code designates that a variety is resistant to verticillum, fusarium, nematodes and tomato spotted wilt.

Most typically, you won’t find those codes on an heirloom seed packet. If you plan on growing heirloom tomatoes this year in your garden, the chances your crop will fail are greater than if you plant a modern hybrid.

However, for the price of a seed packet weighed against the narrow availability of all the delicious varieties offered in the world of tomatoes, I would suggest the increased risk of failure is worth the chance to taste the greater rewards of heirloom tomatoes.

Tom Glass writes a weekly

gardening column for the Vail Daily. Copyright 2009 by Tom Glass.

E-mail comments to

tom@horticulturelogic.com.


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