When I give tomato classes I like to ask people what kind of tomato is their favorite. I ask what they want to grow. The response is often “I want to grow those big heirlooms” which tells me they don’t have a clue about tomato varieties or what heirlooms really are. It’s part of my job to explain just what heirloom means and what it means to tomatoes. So, here it is. The descriptions and distinctions between heirloom and hybrid tomatoes.
In a broad sense, heirloom plant species are vegetables, flowers, and fruits grown from seeds that are passed down from generation to generation. The seeds are at least 50 years old. Heirloom tomato seeds have not been genetically altered. They’re exactly as Mother Nature made them.
Hybrids, on the other hand, are bred to produce crops that are uniform in taste and appearance. They’re more disease resistant than Heirlooms. Hybrids produce high yields of crops at low cost. Seeds from hybrids are sterile and cannot be passed down. If you saved seed from a hybrid and planted it the next season, it would not result in the same tomato from which you saved it. Instead, the result would be one of the parent plants. Hybrid tomatoes are mass produced, often picked when green and often shipped great distances to warehouses awaiting purchase.
So, what does all of this talk about heirlooms and hybrids mean to you? After all, you just want to eat a tasty tomato…
Most tomatoes that you buy in the local grocery store are hybrids. They’re the same shape (round or oval), same color (red) and when you gently cup one in your hand they are, more often than not, hard. That’s not the worst of it. This is the tomato that so many people will buy. They’ll go home, slice it and notice that it’s white inside. Take a bite and it’s almost flavorless. What’s up with that? That, my friends, is the hybrid tomato.
The biggest difference between heirlooms and hybrid tomatoes is flavor. Heirlooms are unquestionably more flavorful and have a complexity of taste that isn’t found in hybrids. The heirlooms tend to have thinner skins and are overall more fragile than hybrids. You won’t see them piled high in truck beds to be shipped someplace.
Grocery store produce buyers are catching on and in some of the markets you’ll now see small displays of heirloom tomatoes. You’ll recognize their irregular shapes; many are ribbed or have multiple lobes and they grow in many colors including orange, yellow, dark purple or green. Sure, there are red heirloom tomatoes, too. My personal favorites happen to be bi-colored. Every bite is like tasting a rainbow. When you look at the price tag for the heirlooms in the market, though, you’ll wonder if they’re really worth spending your entire pot of gold. That, my friends, is something only you can decide. But for me it’s a no-brainer. I’ll go home and grow my own.