Heirloom Tomatoes: Old-Fashioned Goodness
Try a classic variety of everyone's favorite summer fruit.
It’s hard to beat the taste of a juicy, homegrown tomato, fresh-picked and still warm from the sun. It’s harder still to beat the flavor of an heirloom tomato. Heirlooms are old-fashioned, open-pollinated* favorites that originated at least fifty years ago.
Some heirloom tomatoes have become hard to find, as newer hybrids that ship better and last longer in storage have been introduced. While some, such as ‘Brandywine Pink,’ are still sold as plants, you’ll have to grow other, hard-to-find varieties from seeds. They’re worth the trouble, though, as you’ll discover with the first bite.
‘Orange Roma’ – Dating back to around 1955, these early-yielding orange tomatoes have very few seeds and a sweet, fruity flavor. The thick, meaty flesh cooks down nicely for making pastes and sauces. The indeterminate vines bear prolifically.
‘Jaune Flamme’ – This French heirloom’s name means “yellow flame.” The apricot-colored fruits have a sweet flavor with a hint of tartness and are ready to harvest early in the season. Tomatoes hang in clusters on indeterminate vines; each fruit weighs about 3 to 4 ounces. Try them roasted or dried, or slice them for salads.
‘San Marzano’ - Italy is home to these deep red, plum-type tomatoes, and 'San Marzano's grown in the rich soil of the Campania region are said to be among the world’s best paste types. Their sweet flavor, dense pulp, low acidity, and low seed count make them ideal for homemade sauces and pizzas. The bright red skins are easy to peel.
‘Brandywine Pink’ – From 1885, this Amish heirloom has a tangy, rich tomato flavor. The rosy pink fruits are beefsteak-sized, produced on indeterminate vines with leaves that resemble a potato plant’s foliage. The fruits ripen late in the season and are held in small clusters.
‘Mr. Stripey’ –- Weighing in around one to two pounds at maturity, ‘Mr. Stripey’ is a beefsteak-type tomato with pinkish-red and yellow streaks, and a high sugar content that makes them sweet and delicious. The indeterminate vines start bearing in about 80 days and reach 8 to 10 feet tall.
‘Amish Paste’ – Thought to have originated in the 1870s with Amish farmers living in Wisconsin, these bright red tomatoes become popular again in the 1980s, when they were reintroduced in a Seed Savers Exchange catalog. The bright red, plum-type fruits grow on indeterminate vines. They’re juicy and meaty, ranging in size from 8 to 12 ounces at maturity, and are good for eating fresh or cooking.
‘Aunt Ruby’s German Green’ – Give these beefsteak-type tomatoes about 85 days to ripen. At maturity, they weigh around one pound each. They don’t turn red, becoming lime to greenish-yellow when they’re ready to harvest. The sweet meat inside has a slight rosy blush.
‘Black from Tula’ - A slightly salty, smoky flavor distinguishes this Russian heirloom from Tula, an industrial city south of Moscow. The fruits vary from dark brownish-purple to purple-black and can weigh up to 14 ounces. They ripen mid-season on indeterminate vines and are good sliced or canned.
‘Gold Medal’ – First listed as ‘Ruby Gold’ in a 1921 seed catalog, this sweet tomato was renamed ‘Gold Medal’ around 1976. The yellow skins have reddish-pink markings, and the yellow meat inside shows a faint blush. Ready in about 75 days, this tomato has a low acid content that gives it a mild taste.
‘Mortgage Lifter’ (Halladay’s) – Many gardeners claim to grow the legendary ‘Mortgage Lifter’. According to the story, the plants were so popular, the original grower sold enough of them to pay off the mortgage on his family farm. This heirloom hails from the James Halladay family in Kentucky, where it’s been grown since the 1930s. The pink beefsteak fruits are meaty and rich in old-fashioned tomato taste.
- Open-pollinated – A plant that is pollinated by birds, insects or wind. Seeds grown from open-pollinated plants will look like the parent plant. This is in contrast to hybrids, which are plants pollinated through human intervention. Hybrids seeds are usually either sterile, or they produce seedlings that revert to one of the parent forms used to create them.
- Indeterminate vines are those that keep growing and setting fruits throughout the growing season. The vines can be allowed to hang or may be staked or caged, but they need support. Determinate vines bear a crop all at once and have a more compact growth habit.