“Heirloom” tomatoes are generally defined as open-pollinated varieties introduced before 1940 or in circulation more than 50 years, though enthusiasts continue to create new heirloom crosses. They are rigorously categorized and subdivided in ever-evolving, at times arcane, groups. There is even a so-called “mystery” category for “varieties that are a product of natural cross-pollination of other heirloom varieties.”
“Many are oldies but goodies, some are of more recent vintage,” says Goldman. “But all are keepers, worth preserving.”
Tomatoes originated in the coastal highlands of South America, where primitive indigenous forms are still found, and were later domesticated in Mexico. After the Conquest of Mexico, tomatoes found their way to Europe: Spain, Italy and beyond. They arrived in North America before the Revolutionary War, the earliest reference from 1710, when an herbalist reported seeing them in what is now South Carolina.
For Goldman and others like her, growing and promoting heirlooms is more than a practical hobby, it is a fight against biological depletion, an invaluable resource not to be squandered. Industrial agriculture has reduced food varieties by dramatic numbers. Fewer than 10 percent of the 16,000 apple varieties once found in North America are still available. This winnowing of the food gene pool makes all crops less disease-resistant and more susceptible to pests, not to mention far less flavorful.
Industrial farmers shy away from heirlooms, preferring to invest in fruits that are bred for disease resistance, disproportionate yields and long travel. Taste and nutritional content are not top concerns.
Not only are heirloom seeds vital to biodiversity, heirloom tomatoes can be measurably healthier. Unlike commercially grown tomatoes, heirlooms are usually picked when they’re ripe and have far more nutrients than ones picked green. And the bold colors of heirlooms are an additional plus for health. Yellow and orange varieties contain beta carotene, which helps keep your eyes healthy, and the black and purple colors suggest the presence of anthocyanins, which are associated with heart health and boosting brain power.