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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Two Things About Tomatoes: What are Heirlooms and Hybrids?

Two Things About Tomatoes: What are Heirlooms and Hybrids?

Tomato seeds are often described as heirloom seeds or hybrid seeds. What do these terms mean and where did they come from are answered.

Heirloom Tomatoes - The Rusted Garden Blog
What are Heirloom Tomatoes? 
Heirloom tomatoes or seeds came out as a classification term that was coined in the 1980's by Kent Whealy. He borrowed that from another gardener that classified his vegetable seeds that way. Essentially it meant seeds passed down from generation to generation much like a family heirloom chest or object. Heirloom tomato seeds were born and the words have been used together ever since.

In my opinion there are only two kinds of heirlooms: Nature made heirlooms and commercially created heirlooms. The length of time that a specific tomato plant and seeds have been around, and are 100% true to form, also defines whether or not it is classified as an heirloom. True to form means that the seeds grow to give you the same exact plant and fruit. You will find different opinions on the amount of time a variety must exist... I am fine with saying 50 years.

Natural Heirlooms: have been around probably 100's of years and are true to form. They have been passed down from generation to generation or have been growing wild, only to be discovered by some lucky gardener. Nature created them. This is what an heirloom means to me. That is what I look for.

Commercially Created Heirlooms: are tomatoes that were either created for commercial use in the 1940's and 1950's or created by people to cross tomato characteristics. These heirlooms have to go through a long process of breeding over many many generations of plantings to create seed that is true to form year after year after year. This process could take a decade. And it takes another 40 years of staying true to form to be called and classified as an heirloom. People created them and over a 40-50 year period, the new characteristics have become true to form when the seeds are planted.

Short Version... the tomato variety has been around for at least 50 years and the seeds of any generation produce the exact plant and tomato from which the seeds were collected. They are true to form to the plant from which they came. The stable characteristic of the plant and tomato could have been an act of Nature or an act of a Breeder.

Heirloom Tomatoes - The Rusted Vegetable Garden

What are Hybrid Tomatoes?

A hybrid tomato is rarely a product of immediate Nature. Over centuries sure, but not a common occurrence. Hybrid tomatoes are Breeder made tomatoes where two types of tomatoes are hand pollinated in a closed controlled environment. The goal is to get the crossed qualities you desire as a breeder. These desires were mostly that of commercial industries in the 1940's and 1950's. Qualities like uniformity, long shelf life or high fruit production. Hybrids now-a-days come from breeders and seed companies.

They (Burpee for instance) are in theory crossing varieties to give you 'better'  tomato plants and seeds. Either quicker bearing fruit, better tasting fruit or better disease resistance. In my opinion, they are doing it to make a buck. Breeders control the seeds and keep the original crossing varieties a secret. They try and make us believe the hybrids are better. Better enough to spend too much money on seeds when there are perfectly good heirlooms seeds around. The seeds from these plants will NOT produce the same plant and tomato if planted the following year. They are NOT true to form. Yep, you have to go back and buy them again.

Short Version... the hand pollinating or cross pollinating of two tomatoes to produce a plant with combined 'desired' characteristics so seed companies can charge us more money. Don't be fooled.

Heirloom Tomato Salad - The Rusted Garden Blog

Heirloom Tomato Seeds (Saving Seeds)

Heirloom seeds are open pollinated. Open pollination is Nature. There is no human manipulation of the pollinating process. Tomato flowers have male and female reproductive parts. They pollinate themselves. There is no cross pollination between two distinct plants. Very rarely, an insect may cross pollinate a tomato. This is however extremely rare. With heirloom open pollinated tomatoes, the seeds of that tomato produce the exact plant and tomato from which the seeds were saved, when planted again the following year. Seeds are true to form year after year after year.

Short version... you CAN collect and save the seeds and get the same exact tomato next year.

Hybrid Tomato Seeds (Saving Seeds)

Hybrid seeds are cross pollinated by hand and it is a closed pollination process. Humans cross pollinate two types of tomatoes to get new or 'hybrid' tomato characteristics. These characteristics do not show up in the immediate fruit that forms following the cross pollination. The seeds of that plant will have the cross or 'hybrid' characteristics that a breeder wants.

The seeds that are collected are called F1 or first generation seeds. When your plant F1 seeds you get the tomato that has the designed or 'hybrid' characteristics. With hybrid seeds the seeds collected from the F1 fruit will NOT give you the exact same plant and tomato from which the seeds were saved. They are NOT true to form. These are called F2 or second generation seeds. The seeds will produce variations based on a scientific explanation beyond the scope of this entry.

Short version... you CAN NOT collect the seeds and get the same tomatoes next year form hybrid tomatoes. You have to go and buy new F1 generation seeds or plants.

Heirloom and Hybrid Tomatoes in Conclusion

They both taste better when grown in the garden and picked from your garden versus the store bought cello-packed tomatoes.

Heirlooms are tomatoes that have been handed down from generation to generation and when Nature made, they might be 100's of years old.

Hybrids are made by crossing two tomatoes together. They can be bred over time to become true to form seed and in about 50 years can be classified as heirlooms. Or hybrids can be made each year and sold to us as F1 generation plants and seeds that have 'attractive qualities'.

It is your choice to which tomato seeds you enjoy and buy. It seems to me Nature does a fine job of creating tasty resistant tomatoes for any particular region. I am not sure why I would need to pay more for hybrid plants or seeds but you can decide what you want in your garden.

An Heirloom Tomato: The Russian 117 Bicolor Oxheart

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