"New" Heirloom Tomatoes

Along with your favorite heirloom tomatoes, give these modern varieties a try.

| July/August 2016

For the last couple of decades, heirloom tomatoes have experienced a revival of sorts. Talk gardening with any tomato grower, and you’ll likely hear the word “heirloom.” Today they thrive, yet at one point, these tomatoes were not heirlooms – they were just tomatoes. Their rediscovery – the renewed interest in great taste and buying locally – has spurred a new era of tomato breeding from professionals to amateurs, producing some pretty interesting results.

By definition, an heirloom of any type cannot be new. Tomato authorities debate the exact delineation of an heirloom variety, and at times debate can be vociferous. The minimum age of an heirloom ranges from about 50 to 100 years, dating to before approximately 1950 when F1 hybrid tomatoes were widely introduced. They have often been handed down for generations, or of known historical introduction. They must be open-pollinated, thus the parents must be able to produce true-to-type offspring.

The “new heirlooms” – also called modern heirlooms, specialty, or artisanal tomatoes – are not technically heirloom varieties. They are generally produced from two distinct parents. In order to produce good results, many crosses must be made with only a small number of offspring suitable for commercial release.

The resulting offspring and additional parents may be crossed and reselected over the course of many years, in order to select for certain traits, such as crack resistance or resistance to mosaic virus. Technically, these are hybrids, and the result is an open-pollinated plant.

Varieties to try

Currently in the tomato world, stripes are in. One of the first “new heirlooms” was Green Zebra, produced by Tom Wagner for his Tater Mater seed catalog in 1983, and is likely the first green-striped tomato produced. This tomato became so popular and widespread that by the 1990s, most people assumed it was an heirloom. Wagner bred Green Grape, a cherry tomato also often mistaken as an heirloom. Since then, varieties such as Isis Candy cherry, Striped (Speckled) Roman, and Pixie Striped are a few modern heirlooms that have been developed by other folks, either from accidental field crosses or intentional breeding.

Wagner continued his breeding efforts, and his company, New World Seeds and Tubers, recently produced a number of interesting new varieties, including “revisions” of Green Zebra and Green Grape. They are respectively known as Abracazebra, a cherry-size Green Zebra reputed to be more cold hardy, and Green Grape Beyond, a very sweet cherry somewhat prone to cracking, like many green tomatoes. Harvesting before fully ripe reduces this issue.

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