What is an Heirloom Tomato Anyway?

photoThis week Jessica and I spent a day at the National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa, CA. I’m always thrilled to see her, and the festival was a wonderful event and a perfect reminder as to why it is so important to support efforts that promote and preserve our agricultural and culinary heritage. I didn’t exactly know what the definition of heirloom was so I decided to dedicate this week’s post to biodiversity and why it is important to choose heirloom produce, when you can. Come and cook with us!

What does the term “heirloom” mean? Well, the definition is debatable, but what is clear is that heirlooms are always open-pollinated varieties of plants (with the exception of fruit trees which are often grafted and not grown from seeds), meaning that if the seeds produced from the plant are properly saved, they will produce the same variety year after year. Heirloom seeds must be old. How old? Some gardeners consider 1951 as the last year that an heirloom plant can have originated as that marks the year when hybrid varieties started to be widely introduced. Some gardeners are attracted to heirlooms because of their flavor. But what really distinguishes all these heirloom varieties is that they have been passed from one generation to another, carefully grown and saved because they are considered valuable. This value could stem from the flavor, the productivity, the hardiness or adaptability of the plant.

To clarify, heirloom varieties are not necessarily organic because that refers to the way a plant is grown and whether it meets a very strict uniform set of standards defined in our country by the USDA. Hybrids, on the other hand, are different from heirlooms as they have been bred by crossing compatible plants in an effort to create a plant that has the best features of both parents. Many modern plants are considered hybrids, e.g., Early Girl tomatoes. Lastly, hybrids are different from GMOs which are plants (or animals or microorganisms) which have been genetically altered using molecular genetic techniques such as gene cloning and protein engineering. That is very different from a seed that has been saved by a farmer and passed on for generations.

How is saving heirloom seeds related to biodiversity? There is a widely cited study that was conducted in 1983 by the Rural Advancement Foundation International and than published in National Geographic that shows that of the 66 crops included in the U.S. National Seed Storage Laboratory in 1983, 93% of the varieties have gone extinct as compared to the USDA listings of seed varieties sold by commercial U.S. seed houses in 1903. I am no biogeneticist, but as a consumer I feel that the type of produce offered in your average supermarket all looks and often tastes the same. One can usually find two, maybe three types of tomatoes – year-round, mind you – and they don’t provide much variety in flavor. Compare that with the numbers of tomatoes we found at Tuesday’s festival, and I can but applaud the efforts of all heirloom gardeners, seed savers and seed banks. There are many ways to get involved in this effort as a consumer, gardener or even just to learn more about the subject. Visit Seed Matters, Organic Seed Alliance, and Living Seed Company for more information.

As a take-away, next time you are stocking up your fridge – or are selecting seeds for your own garden – take that extra step and visit the farmers market or a seed bank near you. It will help support the farmer, ensure biodiversity and hopefully also give you a better tasting meal in the process! Come and cook with us!

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3 thoughts on “What is an Heirloom Tomato Anyway?

  1. Hi Nancy: Yes, it was somewhat confusing to me, too. The display of produce was incredible. Tomatoes, pumpkins, watermelons, garlic, you name it… It was there. Hope you are well. Kathrin

  2. Pingback: The Flotte Lotte and What She has to Do with Canning! « Come and Cook with Us

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