"Textbook definitions of heirloom plants suggest that any variety cultivated before 1940, the first year of hybrid introductions, can be declared an heirloom. However, purists contend that the only true heirloom plants are those that have been passed down through generations, not just those that date prior to 1940.
The tomato is biologically categorized as a fruit and is similar to other seed-producing garden favorites such as peppers and melons. Gardeners have historically referred to it as a vegetable, and little effort has been made to change that distinction.
Hybrids Versus Heirlooms
A hybrid plant is the result of crossbreeding two genetically different varieties to create a new one. Heirloom plants are open-pollinated. Their seeds are true to type, meaning they produce plants with exactly the same traits as the parents.
Many hybrids have built-in disease resistance; most heirlooms do not.
Hybrids have a generally higher yield than heirlooms.
Hybrid plants and seeds are easy to find and purchase in garden centers; heirlooms are not.
Heirloom plants and seeds are often hard to find at garden centers simply due to low demand. Organizations such as Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org) and Seeds of Diversity (www.seeds.ca) are dedicated to saving heirlooms and are a great resource for gardeners looking to do the same. These groups provide information on companies that sell heirloom seeds and plants and many host seed exchange events.
Recommended Heirloom Varieties
'Black Krim' is a mahogany-colored variety with a true tomato taste. A very heavy producer that's prone to cracking. Second choice is 'Black Prince'.
'Mennonite Orange' is a large, bountiful tomato and truly one of the best-tasting orange varieties. Close second is 'Kellogg's Breakfast'.
'Sioux' is a productive heirloom with smaller rich deep-red colored fruits that have a full-bodied taste. Others include 'Rose de Berne' and 'Costoluto Genovese'.
'Green Zebra' is a smaller-sized milder-tasting variety, but it's a heavy producer that shows pink and yellow on its shoulders when ripe. Others include 'Aunt Ruby's German Green' and 'Green Grape'.
A tie between the 'Caspian Pink', with its mild sweet flavor and flat fruit, and the 'Pink German Tree Tomato', which has a mild but sweet low-acid taste and treelike stems.
'Jaune Negib', a moderate yielding, early-season, small tomato with clusters of golf-ball-sized fruit. Second choices are 'Dr. Wyche's Yellow' and 'Limmony'.
'Northern Lights', with its inner rays of yellow, red and pink, is one of the most beautiful tomato varieties to cultivate and is a highly productive heirloom with a rich taste. 'Big Rainbow' and 'Marvel Striped' are other notable choices.
'Giant Belgium' has a sweet-tasting fruit that can weigh up to 5 lb. The taste is so sweet that some use it to make wine. Other choices include 'Aussie' and 'Mexico'.
There are thousands of heirloom varieties available and a gardener's only limitation is the size of the garden. Cultivating a tomato that has a rich past adds historical significance to the vegetable garden and rewards the gardener with colorful, tasty culinary presentations. Once you have cultivated an array of heirloom tomatoes, you may never grow an ordinary hybrid variety again."