What’s Up With the Odd Heirlooms?

Purple, orange, striped and multicolored tomatoes look as though they should be rejected, but in reality they are sought after as a genuine tomato.

Very soon, heirloom tomatoes will be on our tables at the markets. They are eye catching, ranging from all colors of the rainbow, and oddly shaped. Every heirloom is unique in size, shape, color and taste. Some are striped, black, bigger than your hand, or smaller than your thumb. Heirloom tomatoes aren’t the typical perfectly red and round fruit found at big box grocery stores, but can be scarred, ripped and kind of strange.  

Heirloom tomatoes are different than ones available in a commercial setting because they are not bred for a large consumer market. Tomatoes available at grocery stores are bred or created to be uniform, resistant to disease and bruising in transport, and perfectly red. They are purposely altered so that they can be produced and available in mass quantities, transported and stored for periods of time. Hybrid and GMO tomatoes are created so that they can be harvested all at once. The tomatoes are picked green and artificially ripened when pumped with ethylene gas.  Allowing tomatoes to ripen on the vine adds an unmatched flavor, regardless of the variety. Tomatoes ripened on the vine are not able to be distributed for a commercial market as they would burst when shipping. The tomatoes at the store may look great, but they can lack in taste and nutritional value. The seeds of hybrids aren’t genetically stable meaning that if you plant a seed from a grocery store tomato it will not produce. GMO or hybrid tomatoes are sometimes backed with a patent, which comes with a hefty price tag for farmers who have to buy the seeds each and every year.

We get asked a lot, what does heirloom mean? It all comes down to the seed. Heirloom fruits and vegetables are also known as “heritage”. They are passed down from generation to generation and can date back to some of the produce our great-great-great grandparents ate. Heirloom tomatoes produce seeds that will produce year after year unlike their grocery store counterparts.  Farmers will save seeds from the successful plants and sow again the next year. Overtime, the genes that produce the best fruits are permanent, known to that specific variety. Heirloom tomatoes were selected by farmers over decades by what was best suited for their environment or by what they felt was the best tasting or productive. All heirlooms are “open pollinated” meaning that they are pollinated as nature intended, by insects, birds, or wind, without human intervention. Heirlooms naturally ripen at different times allowing farmers and consumers to have fresh tomatoes over weeks. Heirloom tomatoes tend to have scars that aren’t present on typical tomatoes because they are not created to be resistant to bruising or puncturing.

This season we have planted over 20 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, resulting in more than 500 plants. Each variety varies in colors, size and distinct flavor. Atomic Grape is a large cherry variety with grape undertones. Orange Icicles are sweet, rich and burst with citrus flavor. Black Beauty tomatoes are so dark they look black due to an anthocyanin expression, which is the same antioxidant that give blackberries their coloring. Some have lemon tones, while others taste as though they have been soaked in wine. Every heirloom has its own exclusive flavor and every single one of them is unique. Heirloom tomatoes are sought after by foodies, naturalists, and older generations searching for a tomato that takes them back to their childhood. Some heirlooms can be found as specialty grocery stores, but they are still picked green and artificially ripened and transported long distances, resulting in heirloom tomatoes just like typical grocery store hybrid varieties. Buying direct from local farms ensures vine ripened, fresh fruits that are full of flavor.