What are Heirloom Tomatoes?

The ‘Mortgage Lifter’ has always been a Newsworthy Tomato

what-are-heirloom-tomatoes

By: Anita Stone, North Carolina

What are heirloom tomatoes? There has been a resurgence of interest in tomatoes in recent years, not the everyday luscious fruit, but heirloom tomatoes, a new era of tomato breeding. It is never too early to think about the next great food crop and to prepare for it. It is so much fun to look up stories about each one of the heirloom tomatoes that have been passed down through generations because of their top quality taste and characteristics.

For down-home taste, nothing beats fruits that have been enjoying a renaissance more than 100 years. Most are durable, firm and thick, possess smooth skins free of crack (seams radiating out from the stem and the shoulder of the fruit) and burst (splitting at the blossom end).

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What are heirloom tomatoes? Technically, the term heirloom refers to any variety that has a minimum age history of 50 to 100 years. Heirloom tomatoes contain older genetic material. They should be composed of or include material from an original seed source.

Entire books have been written about the individual history of many of the heirloom tomato species. However, since there are literally thousands of different heirloom varieties, I can’t include all of their stores here, but I can give one interesting example of what are heirloom tomatoes.

The ‘Mortgage Lifter’ has always been a newsworthy tomato. In the early 1930s, Marshall Cletis Byles owned a radiator repair shop, in Logan, West Virginia, which was known for fixing trucks that overheated. He earned his nickname, Radiator Charlie. Because of the Great Depression, Byles was seeking other ways to keep his home from foreclosure. With no experience breeding or growing tomatoes, Byles decided to develop a large and meaty tomato that could feed families. With a baby syringe, he cross-pollinated the ‘German Johnson’ tomato with the ‘Beefsteak’ tomato as well as pollen from other varieties of tomato plants. He saved the seeds from this union, which he planted the following year. Cross-pollination combined with seed saving is a method used in the development of new tomato species. For six years he repeated this process and cross-pollinated the strongest plants with pollen from plants set in a circle with other varieties. When he was satisfied that he had grown a stable tomato, he sold the seedlings for one dollar each, which was a lot of money in those days.

The tomato was named after him: ‘Radiator Charlie’s Tomato’.  The red and pink tomato bears fruit in about 80 days, has very few seeds and is disease resistant. It became so popular that folks drove hundreds of miles just to purchase the seedlings. With the proceeds of the sales, Charlie paid off his $6000 mortgage in six years. His legacy is now called ‘Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter Tomato’.

One popular heirloom, produced by grower Tom Wagner, is the ‘Green Zebra’. This is the first green low-acid heirloom. ‘Green Zebra’ tomatoes produce a very sweet, two-inch round fruit stippled with dark green zebra-like stripes. It is especially tasty in salads. Wagner has also produced an assortment of other varieties that he calls, revisions’of known plants. A couple of these are ‘Abracazebra’, from the ‘Green Zebra’ tomato and ‘Green Grape Beyond’ from the ‘Green Grape’ tomato.

what-are-heirloom-tomatoes

Fresh organic tomatoes, variety “Green Zebra” already ripe on the plant just before harvest

What are heirloom tomatoes? They can also be defined by their offshoots, which have a different color, size, shape and taste. I can mention a small number here which I have organized by their skin color. For instance, there are several pink varieties. One is known as ‘German Queen’, a large-leafed plant that produces a two-pound, deep pink, meaty beefsteak fruit for slicing. If you have a hankering for a large, deep pink sweet tomato, try ‘New Big Dwarf’. This two-inch bushy plant is a great patio plant, easily grown in containers. Another pink hearty fruit is the ‘Long Season Peach’ which produces eight-ounce fruits. This heirloom is notable because it can be stored after ripening. Finally, the ‘Arkansas Traveler’ is a sweet mild-tasting fruit that matures 90 days after planting. This fruit was introduced at the University of Arkansas in 1960. It is a late season producer that offers abundant six to eight-ounce rose-pink tomatoes.

One of the top ten heirloom tomato varieties, according to a national taste test, is ‘Black Prince’. This purple tomato, know as the ‘True Siberian’ slicing tomato, is a garnet colored fruit that matures in cold climates seventy days after planting seeds. The plant is perfect for container gardening. Another purple heirloom is ‘Cherokee Purple’ grown by the Cherokee Native American Tribe in the 1800s, which blooms 80 days after planting. This tomato boasts a sweet smoky flavor. Each 12-ounce purplish-red fruit endures summer heat conditions well. Standing in contrast to these large fruit varieties are small or dwarf heirloom tomatoes. Small fruits, such as the ‘Indigo Blue Berries’ are easy to grow. Simply place seeds in a container and soon you will experience stunning one-ounce cherry size tomatoes of an amethyst purple and eventually ripens almost black in color with a rich red underside. ‘Indigo Blue’ has green flavor and is excellent in salads.  This midget grows in clumps on each stem.

what-are-heirloom-tomatoes

Maroon-skinned Cherokee Purple cherry tomatoes hang from the vine.

As for the more popular red color, an enjoyable petite fruit is the ‘Mexico Midget’ one of several varieties said to have been brought on the Mayflower in 1620. This round red sweet one-half inch fruit is a prolific producer and is a handy and delicious salad addition. If you are looking for a famous name tomato or hankering for a traditional red color, try one of the larger red sweet tastes of the ‘Abraham or Abe Lincoln.’ This fruit was introduced in 1923 and produces clusters of one to three-pound tomatoes eighty days after planting. Besides slicing, this tomato is used for making tomato juice and ketchup.

There are well over 2000 heirloom tomatoes, sometimes called heritage plants, available. Check with your local nursery or county agriculture department which may be able to supply you with names and locations of several types of fruits for any homesteader interested in experimenting with ancient varieties. Whether you purchase seeds or plant seedlings it’s good to know how long does it take tomatoes to grow and to know that you cannot stick either into an unprepared ground. In learning how to care for tomato plants, soil preparation is a must. The preferred method is to use soilless soil plus an enhancer such as ‘Black Kow’ and then you can allow nature and proper watering to work their magic.

Recently I visited a tomato grower who converted his ranch-style home into a tomato jungle, growing well over 100 potted tomato plants, including growing cherry tomatoes in pots, along the driveway. “Growing and offering free fresh fruit is an accommodating gesture. And it is a good policy to share fruits with people that have none,” he said. “Folks don’t realize that tomatoes have complex purposes – sauces, vegetable additions, breaded, fried, baked and stewed conversions.”

When homesteaders become crop-crazed, we probably grow the very best that anyone can offer and become extremely proud of our projects. Our motto becomes, “When we grow our own, we eat our own.” Sustainability plays a major role when growing heirloom produce because we enjoy carrying on traditions of the past, bringing them into modern-day farming.

Heirloom Tips

  • Select a site that offers all day sun, has good air circulation and drainage as too much moisture will encourage blight conditions of the fruit.
  • Make sure there is no hangover of previous diseases in the planting area and that other nightshade crops have not been grown there for four years.
  • Heirloom tomatoes will grow well in large 18 to 20-gallon containers and the dwarf varieties can be grown in five to 10-gallon containers
  • If desired, you can set trellises about eight feet long and three feet wide about 15 feet apart to train your heirloom plants and keep a check on the vines.

What are Heirloom Tomatoes – Definitions

Commercial heirlooms – Tomatoes that are more than 40 years old and introduced by seed companies prior to 1960.

Family heirlooms – Seeds that have been saved and passed down from generation to generation.

Created heirlooms – Seeds crossed deliberately using two heirlooms or an heirloom with a hybrid, by saving and re-planting seeds for four or five seasons.

Mystery heirlooms – Plants that arise accidentally from mutation or natural pollination.

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