By Patricia Rossi, Sonoma County Master Gardener
The scientific definition of an heirloom tomato is an open-pollinated variety; that is, the flower is pollinated with pollen from another plant to make a fruit with seeds that can reproduce the tomato, true to type. Growers can save seed from their crop and sow again in following years and the plants will produce fruit with the same characteristics and quality of the parent. The seeds can be passed down so they become ‘heirlooms’.
Unscientifically speaking, it could be said that an heirloom tomato is “a chip off the old block” produced the old fashioned way. Varieties that were distinguished by their superior flavor, appearance or hardiness were nurtured and saved, to be passed along from one generation to the next.
Appearing in all shapes, sizes, colors and flavors, charmingly named, poetically described and offering opportunities to explore a plethora of varieties and culinary preparations it is no wonder heirlooms are wildly popular. It is worth mentioning that if you garden with children, growing heirlooms can also provide tasty history lessons. The 7th Earl of Edgecombe was a New Zealand sheep farmer when he went to England to claim the title and brought his (Earl of Edgecombe) tomato with him! And there really was an Aunt Ruby, in Greenville Tennessee, responsible for the gorgeous sweet and spicy Aunt Ruby’s German Green Beefsteak tomato.
There is an increasing selection of heirloom tomatoes to choose from at nurseries today. Listed below are some locally available favorites: