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Heirlooms – A Simple Explanation

August 24, 2011
Heirloom tomatoes have become super popular in recent years.  I’ll be honest I never really knew what “heirloom” tomatoes were until a couple of years ago when my interest in gardening turned more obsession-like.  I surfed the web like a madwoman learning all I could about how to grow, what to grow, when to grow and on and on. 
Tomato plants in raised bed

Heirloom tomato plants growing in my raised beds

It was the Tomato Forum over at GardenWeb that opened me up to a whole new world of tomatoes and really sparked my interest in all things heirloom.  I don’t think the average joe and maybe not even the average gardener really knows how many heirloom varieties exist (thousands at one time) and perhaps maybe don’t even know what an “heirloom” actually is other than often having a distinct color or shape and unusual name. 

Heirloom tomatoes

Heirloom tomatoes picked fresh from the garden

Simply put an heirloom is a variety of plant (tomato, melon, lettuce etc.) that has been saved and passed from one generation to the next.  There may be other criteria that lends one to being an heirloom, such as how many generations a variety has been saved, but leave that to the heirloom aficionados.  Let’s keep it simple here, k?


Heirloom: Blacktail Mountain watermelon

An heirloom is typically grown from an open-pollinated (OP) seed, which means they reproduce naturally either through cross-pollination helped from wind and insects or through self-pollination.  On the other hand a hybrid is created from deliberately cross-breeding two parents to create a plant with highly desired traits, such as uniformity and disease resistance. 

If you were to save and grow a seed from an open-pollinated variety, that seed would grow the exact same plant.   If you were to save and grow a seed from a hybrid it would produce a plant showing various traits of its parents and would be completely different.  Of course it’s not all black and white as there are some hybrids that have been stabilized over the years and are now considered OPs. 

Cherokee Green tomato

Green-when-ripe heirloom named Cherokee Green

Since an “heirloom” requires the saving of seeds from generation to generation, these are open-pollinated varieties.  Making sense?  Though keep in mind this is all a very simple explanation and as I mentioned it’s not all black and white and can actually be quite a controversial topic for some, but hopefully this gives you a good gist of the whole ‘heirloom’ thing.

Heirloom tomatoes

Left: Hillbilly, Top: Aunt Ginny's Purple, Right: Cherokee Green

So why might one want to grow  (or eat) heirlooms?

  • HeritageMany feel it is important to preserve and save seeds to be passed from generation to generation as food and gardening is a part of our history.  I buy many of my heirlooms seeds from Seed Savers Exchange here in Iowa – this is a non-profit organization committed to preserving our garden heritage. 
  • Variety.  Us 21st-century folks have a desire for options – whether it’s what to eat, what to wear, hobbies, relationships and so on.  I think we actually expect that there will always be a multitude of items to pick from to be able to express our individualism.   This may be one reason why heirlooms are becoming more mainstream because of the wide variety to pick from – they offer different colors, flavors, shapes and purposes. 
  • Novelty.  In addition to variety, heirlooms can be incredibly unique and interesting and some nowhere near that “perfect” round, red tomato or pink, seedless watermelon.  In addition to color and shape, many heirlooms have really fun and interesting names such as Mr. Stripey, Green Zebra, Aunt Ginny’s Purple or Box Car Willie.  If you want to see the examples of the novelty and variety of heirlooms, order a catalog from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds – it’s a showstopper.
  • Genetic Diversity.  Over the past century the number of heirloom varieties has decreased significantly, which has a lot to do with commercial hybridization practices that created genetically uniform varieties that would increase yields.  A lack of diversity can put our future food production at great risk – you’ve all heard about the Irish potato famine right?  If this is a topic that interests you – I highly recommend doing some Googling to learn more, it is quite fascinating.

    Food Variety Tree showing decline in available seed varieties: from Rural Advancement Foundation International

So that’s heirlooms in a quick nutshell.   Heirloom enthusiasts…please chime in if I’ve forgotten any major points that should be covered!

Sliced heirloom tomatoes

This year my garden has been close to 60% planted with heirloom varieties and I hope to increase that number next year.  Of course I like the variety and the fun stuff I get to plant using heirlooms, but I know there are some other really important reasons why it’s good practice to utilize these seeds and plants.  I encourage you all to add some heirlooms into your garden or your grocery list.  🙂

Oh and definitely your pizza. Yum!

Heirloom tomatoes on pizza

I’m sharing this post with A Little Bit of Spain in Iowa. 🙂

12 Comments leave one →
  1. August 24, 2011 4:04 pm

    Your heirloom tomatoes are beautiful! Would love to plant some, but my hubby isn’t too fond of green or yellow tomatoes because they don’t look “ripe” to him. He’s so picky! Do you start your own seeds? Would love to learn more about that.

    • August 24, 2011 5:31 pm

      I say go for it! The green-when-ripes are my very favorite and have almost a citrusy flavor to them. And yes I do start my own seeds and will definitely show step-by-step next spring when I start them.

  2. August 25, 2011 11:35 am

    Great explanation! I love your pics!

  3. August 26, 2011 3:10 pm

    Well done, Lisa! Thanks for sharing….I’m guilty of wanting to plant one of everything every year. Do you do any seed saving from your harvests? Keep doing what you do, my friend! Can I ask where you’re at in Iowa?

    • August 26, 2011 3:40 pm

      Hi Michele – I have yet to do any seed-saving as a packet usually lasts me a couple years – but I should definitely try at least saving something this year. I just want to try so many things every year but not enough space to do so! I’m in the nice little town of Greenfield. 🙂

  4. drvitausa permalink
    September 26, 2012 10:00 pm

    Heirloom fruits and veggies are worth the effort! I helped put together a community garden and we focused on heirloom vegetables and the turnout was amazing. Your produce looks delicious. Congrats!

    (p.s. I found you from a comment you made on


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