An heirloom tomato (also called heritage tomato in the UK) is an heirloom plant, an open-pollinated (non-hybrid) cultivar of tomato. Heirloom tomatoes have become increasingly popular and more readily available in recent years.
Heirloom tomato cultivars can be found in a wide variety of colors, shapes, flavors and sizes. Some cultivars can be prone to cracking or lack disease resistance. As with most garden plants, cultivars can be acclimated over several gardening seasons to thrive in a geographical location through careful selection and seed saving.
Some cultivars are:
Selection of heirlooms, plus one hybrid, the Early Girl (second largest red)
• Big Rainbow – One of dozens of large fruited yellow tomatoes with red swirls, having a mild, sweet flavor. Hillbilly, below, is another. According to some sources, tomatoes of this color were never sold by American seed companies; their origin is not known.
• Blaby Special – A red fruited cultivar grown in the village of Blaby in Leicestershire until just after World War II. It was the main tomato cultivar supplied through England during the war. The cultivar ceased to be cultivated when the Shoult’s Tomato Farm was closed after the war. The cultivar was brought back into cultivation in 2006 as a result of a campaign by Russell Sharp of Lancaster University. It may have resulted from either a mutation or cross-breed of an older cultivar known as Anwell.
• Black Krim – A dark red to brown cultivar often cited in seed catalogs as being from the “island of Krim” in the Black Sea, better known as the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine (Crimea is known in Ukrainian as Krim).
• Brandywine – The tomato listed as simply “Brandywine” is one of the tomato varieties responsible for the ascendance of the popularity of heirloom varieties due to its excellent flavor and somewhat clouded history. A large fruited pink (red flesh, clear skin) variety produced on vigorous potato leaf foliage plants, Brandywine was passed on from the Sudduth family to an Ohio tomato enthusiast named Ben Quisenberry. Many seed savers traded seeds with Ben, and Brandywine eventually became widely available. Though a variety named “Brandywine” was offered in the late 1800s by the Stokes and Johnson seed company, that appeared to be a red fruited variety with regular leaf foliage. More likely is that Brandywine is a descendant of two similar (if not identical) varieties offered in the 1880s – Mikado (Henderson seed company) or Turner’s Hybrid (Burpee Seed Company). Though several other tomatoes (Red Brandywine, Yellow Brandywine, and Black Brandywine) carry the name of “Brandywine” in part, any true relation between them is pure conjecture. In fact, Yellow Brandywine most closely resembles an old Henderson variety only fleetingly available in the 1890s named “Shah”. Black Brandywine is a recent introduction of the Tomato Growers Supply Company as a purple fruited result of a cross. Upon release, it was not yet stable, as both potato leaf and regular leaf seedlings appeared from the purchased seed.
• Cherokee Purple – One of the very first known “black”, or deep dusky rose-colored cultivars that are becoming so popular. Named in 1990 by Craig LeHoullier, who received seeds of an unnamed cultivar in the mail from J. D. Green of Tennessee. Mr. Green indicated that the “purple” tomato cultivar was given by the Cherokee Indians to his neighbor “100 years ago”. Related to Cherokee Purple are Cherokee Chocolate (which resulted from a clear to yellow skin color, single plant mutation of Cherokee Purple in Craig’s garden in 1995) and Cherokee Green (which emerged from Cherokee Chocolate, also in Craig’s garden, in 1997, and appears to be a flesh color mutation). Both are equally fine flavored, high yielding varieties, but are not strictly heirlooms.
• Green Zebra – Often called an heirloom, it is not. It is an open-pollinated cultivar bred from four heirloom varieties and released by Tom Wagner of Lancaster, Kansas in 1983.
• Hillbilly – See Big Rainbow, above. It is known in regular leaf and potato leaf forms.
• Jubilee – A heavy yielding, golden fruit. Released by Burpee Seed Co. in 1943.
• Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom – This wonderful, unique variety was collected some years ago by Lillian Bruce of Tennessee. Lillian passed the seed on to Robert Richardson, after which it found its way into the Seed Savers Exchange yearbook and became widely traded, and is now commercially available from a many companies. One of the few bright yellow fruited varieties, and the only one with potato leaf foliage, this is a delicious, full flavored tomato that is very meaty, with few seeds. It tends to be a late season variety.
• Mortgage Lifter – One of the more famous heirlooms due to its fanciful history, described in detail in the catalog of the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange company. The enormous pink tomatoes are sweet and tasty.
• Traveler, syn. Arkansas Traveler – An open pollinated pink tomato in the 6-ounce range. Another cultivar commonly referred to as an heirloom, although by most definitions it is technically not. Released by the University of Arkansas in 1970.
A many Soviet tomato varieties have been incorrectly referred to as heirlooms in North America. When U.S. and Canadian seed collectors travelled to the USSR (now CIS) during the 1980s and 1990’s, some of them originally thought that the tomato strains they collected were heirlooms, developed and preserved by the common people over many decades or centuries. It has since been learned that most of these varieties were actually developed by USSR plant breeding laboratories after the Second World War, and are not true heirlooms.