Hot Tomatoes

Heirloom varieties, unlike their store-bought counterparts, are bred for superior flavor and texture.



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No matter how you slice it, an heirloom tomato delivers better taste and texture than a grocery store tomato. That’s the mantra of foodies everywhere, and they’re putting their green thumbs where their mouths are.

Ed Thralls, environmental horticulture agent with the University of Florida’s agriculture extension office in Orange County, holds vegetable gardening classes in June and January. “There’s always interest in heirloom vegetables, primarily tomatoes,” he says.

The problem with store-bought tomatoes comes down to genetic modification based on efficiency, experts say. Breeders wanted hardy tomatoes that ripened evenly and looked perfect. What they got are hardy tomatoes that ripen evenly, look perfect and often taste like cardboard.

In response, consumers have been flocking to farmers markets to buy heirloom tomatoes or they are buying seeds to grow their own.

“People are more interested in heirloom varieties because they’re bred for taste, not appearance,” says Heather Grove, co-founder and community manager of East End Market in Orlando’s  Audubon Park neighborhood. 

Heirloom vegetables, including tomatoes, are distinguished by their age and place of origin. “An heirloom variety usually has to be something that is about 50 years old and has some kind of story to tell,” Thralls says. 

A variety of heirloom tomatoes known as the Mortgage Lifter, for instance, is reputed to have been developed by a shop owner who had no farming experience and was facing bankruptcy. Legend has it that his successful cultivation of this heirloom variety allowed him to pay off his mortgage in six years.

Seed exchanges, which tout heirloom vegetables as a way to recapture the diversity of agriculture, divide heirlooms into four different types:

Family heirlooms: Seeds that have been preserved from year to year and have been passed down for several generations through one family.

Commercial heirlooms: Open-pollinated varieties introduced before 1940, or varieties in circulation for more than 50 years. 

Created heirlooms: Varieties developed by crossing two known parents (either two heirlooms or an heirloom and a hybrid) and dehybridizing the resulting seeds to eliminate undesirable qualities and preserve the desired qualities.

Mystery heirlooms: Varieties resulting from the natural cross-pollination of other heirloom varieties. 

Besides taste and texture, reliability is another reason for the popularity of heirloom tomatoes. Year to year, each variety reproduces true to type because both sides of the DNA in an heirloom variety come from a common stable cultivar. By contrast, hybridized plants’ seeds combine different cultivars.

In Central Florida, it’s best to grow heirloom tomatoes from August to mid-December and from March through mid-June, Thralls says. Although they can be grown in a vegetable garden, in containers, or even in hanging baskets, “pots are probably one of the best ways for tomatoes because you can better control nematodes that would affect the roots of the plant,” says Grove.

For novice gardeners, Thralls offers this caveat: “Heirloom tomatoes are open-pollinated” by wind, insects and birds. “Don’t plant your heirloom next to another open-pollinating variety” or you’ll get cross-pollination and lose the true-to-type feature of the seed variety.

After all, the whole point of heirlooms is to pass them on.

Read more about heirloom tomatoes here.


Heirloom Seed Exchange

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange: southernexposure.com
Seed Savers Exchange: seedsavers.org
Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company: rareseeds.com

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