Heirloom tomatoes – What are they?

heirloom tomatoesHeirloom tomatoes. I think we have all seen them. Big, plump and multicolored. But what are they and where did they come from? According to Carolyn Male and Craig Lehoullier, two top tomato experts, heirlooms fall into four categories:

Commercial heirloom1.  Commercial heirlooms: Open pollinated tomato varieties more than 40 years old, introduced by seed companies somewhere around 1950.


 Family - Pink oxheart2.  Family heirlooms: Tomato seeds that were passed down from generation to generation creating some of the best varieties available. Like the pink oxheart shown above.


Created heirloom3.  Created heirlooms: Cross-breeding between heirlooms and/or hybrids until the desired characteristics are achieved. This has been known to take 5+ years


 Mystery heirloom4.  Mystery heirlooms: Natural cross-breeding or mutation between heirloom varieties. This is how most heirlooms originated.


 Where did the term “heirloom” come from you ask? Well Kent Whealy of Seed Savers Exchange first used “heirloom” in relation to plants in a speech he gave in Tucson Arizona in 1981. He had asked permission to use the term “heirloom” from a man named John Withee, who had used it on the cover of his bean catalog. John had taken the term from Professor William Helper at the University of New Hampshire, who first used “heirloom” to describe beans that friends gave him back in the 1940’s. To me heirloom means a family item that has been passed down for many years and is kept within the family. Pretty cool how it was applied to tomatoes.

heirlooms1Heirloom tomatoes have a large range of flavors and colors. The best tasting tomatoes you have ever had! Their flavors range from smoky and deep to candy-like and sweet. You never know, your neighbor could be growing the best tomatoes in the world in their backyard and you would never know it.  Heirlooms are a dying breed. You should be able to find them at some farmers markets and maybe a few big box stores. But if we could teach our children to keep their own gardens, the future could have an abundance of heirlooms and not just tomatoes but all types of heirloom vegetables. Wouldn’t that be sweet??


Want to read more about heirloom flavors? Check out this article.

And learn some new greenhouse tomato growing tips here.


  1. Pingback: Greenhouse Tomatoes - The Greenhouse Gardener
  2. Pingback: Introduction to Hydroponics - The Greenhouse Gardener
  3. Pingback: Greenhouse Ventilation - Keep it cool!The Greenhouse Gardener