Kinds of Tomatoes: What’s Best for You?

black heirloom tomato, Black Tomato from Sandhill Preservation Center

Have you ever been confronted with the question of whether to grow heirloom or hybrid tomatoes? When I hear it, I cringe, yet probably not for the reason(s) you might think. I do have a preference, yet phrasing the question like this, as I so often hear it, skews the issue. To truly understand this question and answer it, we need to deal with some definitions. The original question doesn’t even mention the first definition we need.

What is a standard variety?

“Standard” refers to a normal variety which will breed true to type, meaning, one can save seeds, and unless it is accidentally crossed with another variety, the seeds will produce new plants which are pretty much identical to the parent plant. “Standard” is the term I prefer when discussing “whatever vs hybrid tomatoes.”  A standard variety reproduces true to type and has clearly defined characteristics defining it as a variety.

Sioux tomato, standard tomato variety: Sioux
Sioux is an example of a standard variety. Developed by the University of Nebraska in the 1940s in the 1940s. I’ve grown and saved seed of Sioux since 2007.

Open pollinated

Another common term, nearly synonymous with “standard” is “open pollinated.” When one hears about “open pollinated tomatoes,” it usually means that they are “standard varieties.” Though nearly synonymous with “standard” and often used interchangeably, this term is broader than “standard,” because it can describe any tomato which isn’t hybrid. For instance a…

 Landrace

Is defined by a population of open pollinated plants which share recognizably similar traits, but has more variability than a standard variety. “Landrace” comes to mind when I think of the wild cherry tomatoes I sometimes saw in rural Mexico. They all had wildly indeterminate growth habits and tiny fruit, but fruit color and flavor would vary. Landraces are pretty hard to find in a seed catalog, since being a landrace requires a pretty large population, generally spread over a region. Varieties labeled in seed catalogs with “landrace” in the name are often selections (now standard varieties) from a landrace.  Another kind of tomato I want to mention is the …

Hybrid Tomato

A hybrid tomato is what grows from the first generation cross (F1) between two standard varieties. This is an important detail. The cross has to be between two clearly defined varieties, which have not been outcrossed for quite a while. Each parent variety should be very uniform. Seed from a first generation cross between them will produce what we call a F1 hybrid.

An F1 Hybrid is Quite Uniform.

Every single plant from the F1 generation will resemble each other as closely as do the plants within a standard variety, yet, the F1 hybrids may be quite distinct from either parent variety. This is a hybrid which in a true sense can be called “a variety,” as it has clearly defined, uniform characteristics. Yet seeds saved from a hybrid almost always produce offspring which differentiate greatly, showing various mixes of characteristics from the two original varieties used to make the hybrid. Generally speaking, it’s not worthwhile saving seed from a hybrid. Note: hybrids generally have the same nutritional value as open pollinated varieties.

Early Girl Tomato, Hybrid tomato
Early Girl, a hybrid tomato variety. Photo by Stacy Spensley on Flickr.

“Heirloom” is currently an overused term.

There are various differing definitions of an “heirloom tomato.” Some say that to be an heirloom, a variety needs to have been maintained 50 years outside of commercial production.  Some use “heirloom” interchangeably with “standard” or “open pollinated,” making “heirloom” the sole option apart from hybrids. Most certainly this is wrong. At the very least an heirloom needs to have some meaningful historical background. My preference is to use the terms “standard” or “open pollinated” for any variety which isn’t a hybrid, and reserve “heirloom” for varieties with some meaningful cultural/historical significance.

For a great example of a true heirloom see: What is Real Heirloom Gardening?

For more of a description of “heirloom gardening:” On Being An Heirloom Gardener

Heirlooms are open pollinated varieties with a history; nothing more. They can be excellent eating and grow very well for you, or, an heirloom may taste like dirt and die a premature death, due to disease. “Heirloom” only describes the historical, cultural aspect of the variety.

One seldom hears much discussion about these kinds of tomatoes (These terms).

Yet the distinctions are important. Here are just a couple points we can make, based on distinctions between these kinds of tomatoes:

  • Hybrids are not reproducible without repeating the same F1 cross between the original parents. Therefore, to grow a hybrid, one generally must purchase plants or seeds every year. This makes them more expensive than standard varieties, yet, if you really like a certain hybrid, the extra cost is probably worth it.
  • Standard/open pollinated varieties can be reproduced from one generation to another, by saving seed. For this reason, they’re generally more economical than hybrids. I prefer them because I love to save seed and I love to get to know a variety, especially as it adapts to my environment, over the years.
  • “Heirlooms” can be really special, but beware of the term. Sometimes “standard” would be a better fit for a variety. A cultural/historical connection between a variety and the past is wonderful. It’s almost magical, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a better tomato.
  • Most tomatoes sold with “landrace” in their names, are not really landraces. They’re selections from a landrace, and now a standard variety.

What’s best for you?

The best tomato for you is the one you like best! I encourage you to learn and use these terms and grow what you like best.

For a lot of great reading on genetics and home plant breeding consider Carol Deppe’s Book, Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener’s and Farmer’s Guide to Plant Breeding and Seed Saving.

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