Tomatoes are a common crop for vegetable gardens around the world. Other than the bright red tomatoes you usually see, there’s a sea of colors, shapes, sizes and unique flavors you can explore. Tomato gardeners are always on the lookout for new varieties to plant and bring versatility to their dinner table. Heirloom tomatoes are always a big hit for their authentic flavors and characteristics, passed down through generations without the slightest change.
How many varieties of heirloom tomatoes are there to plant anyway? Continue reading and learn all there is to know about heirloom tomatoes before you choose a special one for your garden.
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What Is An Heirloom Tomato?
An heirloom tomato, also called a heritage tomato, is an open-pollinated, non-hybrid tomato variety. Grown from open-pollinated seeds season after season, these varieties have been passed down generations in the farmer families. Open-pollinated means that they are pollinated naturally, by wind, insects, birds or humans, and not using any scientific means.
How Is An Heirloom Tomato Different From Hybrid Tomato
Heirloom tomatoes are different from hybrid tomatoes in that they breed true to type. If you take seeds from an heirloom tomato and plant them in the spring, they’ll produce tomatoes that look and taste just the same as the parent tomato that you took the seed from.
Hybrid tomatoes, on the other hand, are the result of crossbreeding between different tomato varieties to achieve some desirable traits, such as pest or disease resistance. As a drawback, the taste may not be as superior as that of heirloom tomatoes.
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Types Of Heirloom Tomatoes
According to tomato experts Craig LeHoullier and Dr. Carolyn Male, all heirloom tomatoes can be classified into four categories:
These may be the truest heirlooms, complying with the definition of heirloom tomatoes mentioned under the heading “What Is An Heirloom Tomato” above. These are tomato varieties that have been passed down generations in the same family, or extended family.
These are open-pollinated varieties that were introduced by seed companies before 1940, or have been cultivated for at least 50 years.
These are varieties that have been created by cross-breeding either two heirlooms or an heirloom and a hybrid and then de-hybridizing the new seed by breeding it for a number of generations, typically 7 to 8 years, until the characteristics stabilize.
These are the varieties that are created when two heirlooms naturally cross-pollinate, by insects, wind or other sources.
Open Pollinated VS Heirloom Varieties
Open-pollination refers to how the varieties are pollinated. Open-pollinated varieties are pollinated by natural means, including insects, birds and human hands. When a plant from an open-pollinated seed self-pollinates or pollinates with another plant from the same variety, the resulting plant will be identical to the parents. When seeds from open-pollinated varieties are saved through the generations, they turn into heirloom varieties.
Do note that all heirloom varieties are open-pollinated. However, not every open-pollinated tomato variety is necessarily an heirloom.
How Many Varieties Of Heirloom Tomatoes Are There?
Now, the most important question is: how many varieties of heirloom tomatoes are there? Tomatoes are cultivated and consumed across the world. Their sweet, tangy, juicy texture makes them the heart and soul of many dishes. You can eat them raw in salads, add them to your favorite dishes or eat them right off the vine – they’re truly delicious in every form, and even more so when it’s an heirloom!
You’ll be surprised to learn that there are at least 10,000 unique tomato varieties across the globe! From beefsteaks, cherry, grape and plum to green tomatoes, there are all sorts of different tomatoes to explore. A trip to the farmer’s market may show you a bunch of these. However, they’re not all heirloom tomatoes. Hybrid tomatoes are more popular in commercial production for their desirable traits, especially pest and disease resistance.
Currently, there are about 3000 known heirloom tomatoes in active cultivation. This means that you have lots of options even if you want to introduce heirloom tomatoes to your vegetable garden. While most of the heirloom tomatoes are indeterminate, you can also find some determinate heirloom varieties, such as VR Moscow and Tumbling Tom, that are excellent for growing in small gardens or container gardens.
What Are The Most Popular Heirloom Tomatoes?
Now that you know a bit about heirloom tomatoes, where do you start? What are the most popular heirloom tomatoes out there. Here’s a list you can pick from, but do make sure that the variety works for your climate before planting the seeds.
- Cherokee Purple
- Black Cherry
- Hawaiian Pineapple
- Green Giant
- Green Zebra
- Amish Paste
- Arkansas Traveler
- Black Cherry
- Black Krim
- Black Russian
- Bonny Best
- Chocolate Stripes
- German Johnson
- Constoluto Genovese
- Great White
- Kellogg’s Breakfast
How Many Varieties of Tomatoes Exist?
There are about 10,000 varieties of tomatoes around the world. Many of them are hybrids. Tomato varieties come in different shapes, colors, sizes, each with their own unique flavors. You’ll find purple, yellow, white and even black tomatoes. Some varieties can be striped or spotted too.
All these varieties are fruits produced on the plant Solanum lycopersicum and are used as a vegetable for cooking. These thousands of varieties can be broadly categorized under 6 types.
The 6 types of tomatoes include:
- Cherry Tomatoes
Tomato lovers are especially fond of cherry tomatoes. These small, round, bite-sized tomatoes come in a range of different colors, from red, orange and yellow to purple varieties. They’re very juicy and pop into your mouth with a burst of flavor when you bite into them. They can be cooked, grilled or added fresh to salads. Cherry tomatoes also make a great standalone snack to eat fresh off the vines. Both hybrid and heirloom cherry tomatoes exist.
- Grape Tomatoes
Grape tomatoes are small and oblong, much like a grape in their shape. They are crisp, and the flavor can range from sweet to tangy depending on the variety you pick. Grape tomatoes have a low water content and hold their shape well when cooked, making them an excellent addition to cooked meals. You can add them to pasta, steaks, fish, chicken, salads, or eat them fresh off the vine.
- Beefsteak Tomatoes
Beefsteaks are large, meaty tomatoes, often called the ‘King of Tomatoes’. They pack lots of juice but are sturdy, firm and hold their shape well even when you thinly slice them. They’re best used as a slicing tomato for burgers and sandwiches. The superior flavor and juices also make them an excellent choice for sauces and dips. Besides the usual red beefsteaks, green varieties also exist.
- Roma Tomatoes
Roma tomatoes, or Italian plum tomatoes are sweet and juicy, ideal for sauces, paste and stews. They pack lots of flavor and are an ideal choice for canning. You can also consume them raw in salads.
Green tomatoes may refer to unripe tomatoes that have not yet turned their final ripe color, or the varieties that stay green even after they are fully ripe. As the name of a tomato variety, it refers to the latter.
Green tomatoes are firm, tangy and easy to slice. They hold their shape well and are excellent for frying. They’re great for canning or making into sauces. You can also use them for cooking, to bring a unique, tangy, slightly sour flavor to dishes.
- Heirloom Tomatoes
Heirloom tomatoes are non-hybrid tomatoes that have been passed down generations without allowing the seeds to cross pollinate with other types. They come in a range of different shapes, colors and flavors. Typically, heirlooms have a deeper sweeter flavor as compared to hybrids and can be used in many different ways. They’re great for canning, making sauces, or adding to main dishes and salads.
There are several heirloom tomato varieties to explore out there. The unsurpassed flavors are hard to find in grocery store tomatoes. Other than the unique flavors, one of the best features of heirloom tomatoes is that once you start growing them, you don’t need to purchase seeds each year. You can continue saving seeds each season and plant them in spring to grow a new generation of the same classic tomatoes.
No matter which tomato you grow, provide them with good care to produce the ideal harvest you’re looking for. You’ll love picking the clusters of fresh, homegrown tomatoes and using them in your recipes.