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"Heirloom" Defined

What the Term "Heirloom" Means to Tomatoes

Posted by Drew

Many farmers, backyard gardeners, and agricultural old-timers have long known about heirloom tomato seeds. These were the tomatoes that had been selected and grown for generations. But what defines an heirloom is actually quite complicated. There are many schools of thought on this specific definition, but what is generally agreed upon is that the seed must be an Open Pollinated Variety {O.P. Variety} - which means, if saved properly, the seeds will produce the same plant again. Hybrid seeds, on the the other hand, are combinations of two different plants, and their saved seeds will revert to one of the parent varieties or be unable to successfully produce a plant.

Heirloom seeds are also generational seeds: they have been saved, season after season, by growers. In no way have they been hybridized or genetically altered. Heirlooms seeds have been selected and stabilized using classic breeding practices. Some argue that in order qualify as an "Heirloom", the variety must have been in existence for over a century, and others believe the variety must pre-date the end of WWII and the dawn of industrial agriculture, which brought about the prolific use of hybridized seeds.

More poetically driven schools of thought insist that in order to be an heirloom, the seed must have been passed down generation to generation - which is what literally defines the word "heirloom". In many circumstances, certain varieties do have accompanying stories that illuminate the interesting historical character behind the tomato. One example is the Cherokee Purple tomato. As the story goes, this tomato was selected, cultivated and saved by Native American Cherokees and had been pass down through a family for over 100 years. The seeds were then formally recognized, named and are now one of the most widely known and celebrated heirloom tomato varieties being grown today.

What is imperative to recognize is that these heirloom varieties, regardless of their accompanying stories, are plants that are essential to agriculture’s genetic diversity. Most of these seeds have developed their own resistance to disease and pests thanks to many, many years of evolution. Even new varieties being developed lean on the genetic fabric of these older seeds, which have naturally become resistant without any synthetic or genetic alterations.