Let's start by defining our terms - here are some generally accepted definitions of the three types of tomatoes.
Hybrids are plants where two or more varieties are crossed under controlled conditions in order to obtain favorable traits from each parent in the resulting plant. Growers could be seeking better cold tolerance, higher yields per plant etc. Seeds cannot be saved from hybrids to grow out a second generation of the parent plant.
Open-pollinated plants will produce seeds that will create a new generation true to the parent. The pollination occurs naturally via insects, birds, wind etc.
Heirloom plants are open pollinated plants that were grown for at least 50 years, and are passed down from generation to generation.
All heirloom plants are open pollinated, but not all open pollinated plants are heirlooms.
With all of the recent furor about GMO's (genetically modified organisms) as well as other food additives; many folks want to know exactly what they are consuming. One way to ensure that you know what you are eating is by buying, or growing open pollinated heirloom tomatoes.
I have been growing heirlooms and OP tomatoes for many years. I have found that I learn something new every year. I do have to say that over that period of time I have only came across one really bad tasting tomato; it was a variety called Dagmar's Perfection. It was tasteless and the flesh was very grainy. Each variety has their own unique taste. There are over 3000 varieties available so there is a tomato to fit everyone's palate.
Some proponents of hybrid tomatoes will tell you that heirlooms or open-pollinated varieties are more disease-resistant. I can say from experience that I've never had a disease problem other than a little blight which my hybrid growing friends also experienced. I attribute it to weather conditions.
I recently attended an heirloom tomato seminar sponsored by Michigan State University Extension. It was held at a farm where the owner was experimenting with different heirloom varieties, and growing methods. The farm has a retail outlet to sell their crops as well wholesaling to other outlets. The main issues concerning heirlooms were as follows.
* They do not ship well. Some varieties bruise very easily. The conclusion was that if heirloom tomatoes are grown for commercial sale they need to be packed very carefully in order to avoid damage.
* Most people are convinced that a tomato has to be red in color, and perfectly round in order to taste good. This issue is being addressed by offering samples of different varieties in each color and shape to the customers. The public's reaction has been somewhat amusing. The taste of a purple, black, or yellow has created a real "wow" factor. The reaction to the extraordinary taste usually sends customers home with a lot of new varieties to try.
One of my favorite things about growing heirlooms is exploring the history of each variety. One of the best websites for information on growing heirloom tomatoes is Tatiana's tomatobase. Thousands of varieties are listed giving plant properties, and seed sources with the history of each variety.
I also like to research the names of each variety, which are sometimes quite humorous. I'm not sure how many of the sources are factual or based on folklore, but either way it makes fun reading. Here are some examples.
'Mortgage Lifter' is an heirloom from 1930s, said to be developed by a radiator repairman, and a gardener in West Virginia, "Radiator Charlie" Byles, who crossed the 4 biggest varieties he knew, and created a variety that produced immense, tasty fruit. He paid off his mortgage by selling fruits (or seedlings, as some sources indicate).
'Goose Creek' is an heirloom from the early 1800s, from the family of edible landscape expert, Jimmy Williams, owner of Hayground Organic Gardening in California. The story says that the seeds have been passed down through generations since the 1800's when Jimmy's great-great grandmother, a young Caribbean slave, smuggled them with her aboard ship that docked at Charleston near Goose Creek, South Carolina. Jimmy's grandmother, Elouise Watson, shared this precious heirloom with him in the 1950-60s. There is some controversy about the origin, and dating of this tomato. The experts know that there were no 'smooth' tomatoes available in the early 1800s.
'Mule Team' was bred by a gentleman, Joe Bratka, whose father Joe, found the seeds in glass jars in a tool shed on their property, he could not germinate any of them, and sent seeds to Carolyn Male, who succeeded in germinating the seed.
There are some excellent web sites to gather information, purchase or trade seeds. These are my favorites in no particular order. Tatiana's tomatobase. tomatoville.com, and davesgarden tomato forum. Recommended seed sources for heirloom, OP tomatoes and other seeds are as follows. Baker Creek seeds6)Seed Savers exchange Tomato Growers Supply, as well as Tatiana's tomatobase.
There is a new book hot off the press, a must-read for all serious tomato growers. Epic Tomatoes by Craig LeHoullier. There are 256 pages chock full of information on growing heirloom and open pollinated tomatoes. Craig's passion for tomatoes exploded after joining the Seed Savers Exchange in 1986.
The main focus is on open pollinated (non-hybrid) varieties, in a wide range of colors, sizes and flavors. He is responsible for naming, developing, and introducing many varieties, such as Cherokee Purple, and Lucky Cross. He has been co-leading a unique all-volunteer project to create new dwarf-growing varieties. The project is responsible for 36 new tomatoes available through a variety of seed companies, particularly valuable for space-constrained gardeners who wish to grow wonderful tomatoes on decks or patios. Craig continues to be active in the Seed Savers Exchange. and has served as Adviser on Tomatoes to the organization for many years.
I encourage you to try some heirloom and OP tomatoes this season, you won't be disappointed.
Seed Savers Exchange