“When people come to our farm and see tomatoes that are purple, yellow, green, striped, orange, every size shape and color imaginable, they’re definitely surprised,” says Diane Ott Whealy, co-founder of Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving garden heritage through the sharing of heirloom seeds.
Besides the surface differences between a typical store-bought tomato and heirloom tomatoes, there’s a big difference in taste, too. “Store tomatoes are usually bred to be red, the same size and shape, and thick-skinned so they can withstand shipping,” Whealy explains. The unfortunate side effect? “They end up breeding out the juiciness.”
Maybe that’s why people get so excited about heirloom tomatoes, which Whealy laughingly refers to as ‘a gateway drug.’ Not only do the differences in flavor, texture and size make them more interesting, heirlooms are also undeniably delicious.
“A lot of people have never had a true heirloom tomato,” and often those are the same people who claim not to like them, Whealy says. But once they try an heirloom for the first time, they often become passionate tomato converts.
While flavor and texture are a big part of an heirloom tomato’s appeal, many farmers also point to the importance of bio-diversity and doubts about the safety and healthiness of hybrid seeds.
What’s all the fuss about? While hybridization is great for yield, allowing farmers to feed more people with less effort, it’s not necessarily so great for the environment as a whole. As Whealy points out, it’s not just about what the food gives us: “By growing more diverse plants, we’re giving more back to the environment,” she says.
In particular, there is growing concern over the health effects of food produced from genetically modified seeds, which some experts believe can cause serious allergic reactions and the possibility of foreign genes transferring from the food to human bodies.
The potential health effects of genetically modified foods are still uncertain, but the possibility is enough to make anti-GMO activists uneasy and has led to the banning of some genetically-modified foods in Europe. While hybrid seeds are not necessarily genetically modified – and many are not - there are currently no laws requiring genetically-modified seeds to be labeled as such, and hybrid seeds are a large (and profitable) part of the “factory farm” system that smaller farmers view with suspicion.
A passion for non-bioengineered food is a big part of the philosophy at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, a catalog offering 1300 varieties of vegetables, flowers and herbs and the largest selection of heirloom varieties in the United States.
Owner Jere Gettle, who also authored the book The Life Heirloom Gardener with his wife Emilee, is dedicated to keeping genetically modified seeds out of the food supply and promotes a natural, “heirloom” way of life that includes healthier food and more connection to nature.
No matter where you stand on the hybrid vs. heirloom debate, there’s no denying that heirloom tomatoes are mouth-wateringly delicious and beautiful to look at. We asked Gettle and his co-workers at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds to choose their favorite tomatoes based on flavor, texture and beauty.
These 8 standouts certainly show off the incredible diversity of heirloom tomatoes, but it’s just the beginning. There are hundreds more offered in their online catalog.
- Violet Jasper: A violet-purple fruit with iridescent green streaks, these smooth-skinned beauties boast eye-catching dark-purple flesh. It’s a very productive variety, so you can share this impressive tomato with more friends and neighbors.
- Granny Cantrell: A meaty beefsteak tomato, named after a woman who received the seeds from a soldier returning home from Germany after World War II. This flavorful fruit was named best-tasting tomato of the year at a taste-testing contest at Baker Creek’s Heirloom Gardens Show.
- Pilcer Vesy: A productive plant that yields plenty of large, lemon-yellow tomatoes with thick, tasty flesh. Originally from Russia, they’re sure to become a favorite here.
- The Great White: A Baker Creek favorite, these smooth, fruity-tasting tomatoes taste great right off the vine.
- The Hillbilly: A huge, brilliant yellow tomato marbled with red. Looks beautiful sliced, and impresses with a rich, sweet flavor.
- Woodle Orange: With a complex rich and sweet flavor, this large, smooth fruit keeps a nice round shape and wows with its brilliant tangerine color.
- Cour di Bue: A fabulous Oxhert-type heirloom with a sweet, delicious taste. One of Gettle’s favorites – he calls the flavor “perfect.”
- Cherokee Purple: Another of Gettle’s favorites, especially when it comes to dark tomatoes. Its deep, dusky purple-pink color and sweet flavor make it a knockout.