Heirloom tomatoes have regained popularity in recent years, and it’s easy to see why. They’re richly flavorful and come in a wide array of vibrant colors. Read on to discover the top heirloom tomato varieties and learn about their growth habits, flavor profiles, and more.
Tomatoes grown for commercial distribution are often selected based on their durability and appearance rather than flavor. This results in the watery, flavorless tomatoes that you frequently find lining grocery store shelves.
Store-bought tomatoes are often lacking in essential nutrients because they’re picked green and ripen during shipment. Tomatoes that ripen on the vine contain more vitamins and minerals that promote human health.
Tomatoes are rich in vitamin C, vitamin K, potassium, and folate. They’re also an excellent source of the antioxidant lycopene, which reduces the risk of heart disease and cancer.
When you grow your own tomatoes and other fruits and veggies, the difference in flavor and overall quality is unmistakable. Many gardeners prefer tried and true heirloom varieties for their superior taste.
- What are Heirloom Tomatoes?
- Best Types of Heirloom Tomatoes for Slicing
- Leading Heirloom Tomato Varieties for Canning
- Top Varieties of Heirloom Cherry Tomatoes
What are Heirloom Tomatoes?
Heirloom varieties have become increasingly more common lately in farmers markets and garden centers. But have you ever wondered, “Exactly what are heirloom tomatoes?”
Heirloom fruits and vegetables come from old cultivars that have been preserved through generations by careful seed saving. Typically these heirloom tomato varieties are at least 50 years old, and some are over 100 years old.
Some heirloom seeds get handed down through generations of growers in a particular region. Universities developed others for horticultural breeding programs.
All heirloom plants are open-pollinated, meaning insects pollinate them or they’re self-pollinating like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, beans, and peas.
Self-pollinating plants have their pistils and stigma in the same flower, and pollen transfers by the wind moving the flowers. A bit of help from pollinators never hurts, though.
Hybrid plants occur when two cultivars are intentionally cross-bred to produce offspring with the two original “parent” plants’ best traits. These traits may include fruit production, disease resistance, or fruit size.
Cross-pollination occurs naturally in some open-pollinated plants. However, for hybridization, the pollination process is closely controlled to ensure that the correct plants get crossed to produce the desired combination of traits.
Find heirloom tomato seeds at your local plant nursery or from a seed company like Seed Savers Exchange. Growing heirloom tomatoes in buckets is just as easy as putting them in the garden.
The way to grow heirloom tomatoes is the same as hybrids. However, if you want to save heirloom seeds, keep the two types of plants far from each other in the garden to prevent cross-pollination.
Determinate vs. Indeterminate Tomatoes
Tomato varieties grow quite differently depending on if they’re determinate or indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes reach a maximum size toward the end of the growing season.
They tend to have all of their fruit ripen at once. Indeterminate tomatoes continue growing and producing fruit as long as conditions allow. When growing your own heirloom plants, ensure you utilize the correct heirloom tomato plant spacing guidelines so that you enjoy a bountiful harvest.
Keeping the right distance between plants helps prevent disease and lessens the chances of bugs on heirloom tomato plants.
Best Types of Heirloom Tomatoes for Slicing
Gardeners prefer different types of heirloom tomatoes for various purposes. Here are a few of the best varieties of heirloom tomatoes for slicing and eating fresh on salads, sandwiches, or as a stand-alone snack.
This heirloom variety was developed in 1964 by the Asgrow Seed Company. It’s a prolific determinate cultivar with a sweet, mild flavor and low acidity.
Due to their low acid content, these tomatoes aren’t suitable for canning and are best eaten fresh or used for cooking.
Plants mature in about 80-85 days and are highly disease-resistant. The “VF” in the name refers to resistance to Verticillium and Fusarium wilt. These tomato plants have a bush-type growth habit and may not require staking for support.
Arkansas Traveller is an indeterminate tomato variety that originated in the Ozark mountains in the late 1800s. Gardeners favor this strain for its crack-resistant skin, tolerance for high heat and humidity, and overall disease resistance.
These plants mature in about 80 days and produce round six- to eight-ounce tomatoes with pinkish skin and a mildly sweet flavor. It’s best to control their sprawling growth habit with a trellis, tomato cage, or stakes.
Aunt Ruby’s German Green Tomato
Although this variety does come from Germany, it was first grown in the US by Ruby Arnold in Tennessee and was introduced to the Seed Savers Exchange in 1993.
Aunt Ruby’s tomatoes won the Heirloom Garden Show taste test in 2003 for their sweet flavor with a hint of spiciness. They’re green when ripe and develop a slight blush as they mature.
These indeterminate tomato plants ripen in 70-80 days and produce large tomatoes that weigh up to 18 ounces. Hold up the heavy vines with a trellis, tomato cage, or stakes.
First introduced to the Seed Savers Exchange in 1990, Black Krim is a Russian tomato variety originating from the Isle of Krim in the Black Sea, near the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine.
These indeterminate beefsteak-type tomato plants produce a generous harvest of dark reddish-purple fruits weighing up to 12 ounces each. Black Krim tomatoes have a rich, complex flavor and are highly nutritious.
Provide a structure to hold up the growing vines and heavy fruit. Black Krim is a hearty, disease-resistant variety, and plants mature in 80-85 days.
While the delicious flavor of Brandywine tomatoes is unmistakable, their origins are somewhat unclear. The earliest record of Brandywine tomato varieties dates to 1896, when it first appeared in Burpee’s seed catalog.
The original Brandywine tomatoes are large, pink, meaty tomatoes that weigh an average of one to two pounds. Over the years, growers have developed red, yellow, and black varieties of Brandywine tomatoes.
Because there are so many cultivars bearing the name Brandywine, there are now both determinate and indeterminate varieties. Most plants mature in 70-100 days.
Cherokee Purple tomatoes also have an intriguing and colorful history. This variety was introduced to the Seed Savers Exchange in 1990 by Craig LeHoullier, a retired chemist from Raleigh, North Carolina.
He received a packet of seeds along with a handwritten note from John Green of Sevierville, Tennessee, whose neighbor claimed that they’d been in her family for over 100 years after initially receiving the seeds from a local Cherokee tribe.
Cherokee Purple tomatoes are often irregularly shaped with a mix of colors ranging from deep reddish-purple to brown and dark green.
The average fruit size is 12-16 ounces. These indeterminate tomato plants have a bushy growth habit and mature in about 80 days.
These unique tomatoes are a beautiful deep red color with dark green stripes. Developed in Covington, Ohio by John Siegel, Chocolate Stripes was one of the top three “best-tasting tomatoes” in the Carmel TomatoFest event in 2006 and 2007.
They’re an indeterminate variety, mature in approximately 80 days, and produce one-pound tomatoes that are four to six inches in diameter well into autumn.
The fruits have a rich, earthy flavor and are excellent for fresh eating by themselves or in a sandwich or salad.
Developed in 1983 by Tom Wagner in Everett, Washington, Green Zebra is the result of four types of heirloom tomatoes bred over several decades, so it’s debated among growers whether Green Zebra is a true heirloom tomato.
In any case, they’re as delicious as they are beautiful. These tomatoes are bright green with darker green stripes and have juicy, meaty green flesh.
As they ripen, the light green fades to a yellow or pinkish blush. They have a tangy, complex flavor and are ideal for fresh eating as well as canning.
These indeterminate tomato plants mature in 75-80 days and produce half-pound tomatoes two or three inches in diameter. They’re highly drought and disease-resistant, and the vines grow five feet long or more.
Gold Medal heirloom tomatoes, originally called Ruby Gold when John Lewis Child first listed the variety in his seed catalog in 1921, were renamed Gold Medal in 1976 when Ben Quisenberry listed it as “the sweetest tomato you’ve ever tasted.”
These delicious yellow and red bi-color tomatoes won the Seed Savers Exchange Tasting in 2008.
Gold Medal is an indeterminate variety and matures in approximately 90 days. Plants produce a generous harvest of one- to two-pound tomatoes that are low in acidity and have a mild, sweet flavor that’s perfect for fresh eating.
Leading Heirloom Tomato Varieties for Canning
An ideal way to store tomatoes long term is by canning them. The best tomatoes to use for canning and making soups and sauces have dense meaty flesh and a high acidity level to preserve the tomato flavor throughout the cooking process. Here are a few terrific tomato varieties to use for cooking as well as eating fresh.
This plum tomato variety dates back to the late 1800s and comes from the Amish communities of Wisconsin. The meaty flesh and complex flavor makes these tomatoes perfect for canning and making sauces.
Amish Paste is an indeterminate variety that matures in about 80 days. It produces a consistent crop of six- to eight-ounce oblong tomatoes until the first frost in autumn. Being an indeterminate variety, it’s best to reinforce the plants with a trellis or tomato cage.
Bonny Best tomatoes have the perfect balance of sweetness and acidity to make them a favorite for canning. Developed by George W. Middleton of Jefferson, Pennsylvania, in 1897, Bonny Best tomatoes gained popularity nationwide by 1910.
These indeterminate heirloom tomato plants mature in 75-80 days and produce bright red fruit averaging five to ten ounces in weight. Provide structural support for these fast-growing and prolific plants with a trellis, tomato cage, or stakes.
Mortgage Lifter tomatoes get their name from the story of their original developer, M.C. Byles, or “Radiator Charlie,” who bred the cultivar in the 1930’s over the course of six years and sold the seedlings for a dollar each.
As the variety grew in popularity, people would drive over 200 miles to buy the seedlings, and Byles was able to pay off his $6,000 home loan in six years.
Mortgage Lifters are indeterminate beefsteak tomatoes, and the plants grow seven to nine feet tall. They produce equally large fruit, typically weighing in at two to three pounds. The tomatoes are a light reddish pink and have a juicy, sweet flavor.
This heirloom tomato variety has a distinctively sweet, smoky flavor that’s earned it a substantial following over the years. Originating in Siberia, Paul Robeson tomatoes were first introduced to the US by Russian seed seller Marina Danilenko in 1992.
The variety gets its name from a famous African-American opera singer and civil rights activist of the mid-1900’s. Ideal for canning or eating fresh, Paul Robeson tomatoes are usually about three to four inches in diameter and weigh about a half-pound.
These indeterminate tomato plants usually require staking. They’re ideal for cooler climates, as they set fruit at lower temperatures than most other heirloom tomato varieties.
San Marzano tomatoes are a classic favorite for canning and making sauces. The origins of this heirloom tomato variety date back to 18th century Italy.
They’re a high-producing indeterminate cultivar, so you’ll enjoy a continuous harvest of four- to six-ounce oblong tomatoes all summer long. Be sure to reinforce the heavy vines with a tomato cage, trellis, or stakes.
If you’re looking for an excellent use for your San Marzanos at the end of the summer, try this delicious recipe for homemade marinara sauce.
Wash the San Marzano tomatoes and make two slits crossing the tomato’s bottom for easier peeling after blanching. Blanch the tomatoes in boiling water for about 20-30 seconds, then remove them to an ice bath using a slotted spoon.
Once they’re cool enough to handle, peel off the skin and set them aside. In a medium-sized skillet, heat the olive oil and sauté the garlic for one minute over medium heat. Add the peeled tomatoes and sauté for three more minutes.
Add the red wine and cook on high until the alcohol evaporates. Incorporate the tomato puree, oregano, and salt and mix well.
After simmering for a few minutes, stir in the basil leaves and one cup of water and bring to a boil. Use a blender or food processor to get the sauce to your desired consistency.
Store your marinara sauce in an airtight container. Use it immediately or freeze it for up to three months.
Top Varieties of Heirloom Cherry Tomatoes
Cherry tomatoes are small, sweet tomatoes usually no more than two or three inches in diameter.
They’re typically used fresh in salads or as a delicious stand-alone snack. Some gardeners prefer to grow cherry tomatoes in tall planters or hanging baskets to let the vines trail.
These little beauties pack the same flavorful punch we love in full-size black tomatoes, but their rich, juicy sweetness comes in bite-size cherry tomatoes.
The late legendary tomato grower Vince Sapp first discovered the natural mutation for black cherry tomatoes in Florida in 2003.
These delicious one-inch cherry tomatoes mature quickly in 65-75 days and grow on long vines that reach up to five feet. Prune regularly and provide structure as needed.
Sungold cherry tomatoes are from the Tokita Seed Company in Japan. These tomatoes were introduced to the US and Europe in 1992. The small one- to two-inch fruits are a deep golden color and have a sweet, tangy flavor.
The plants are highly disease-resistant and heat tolerant. Expect a prolific harvest all summer long from these indeterminate tomato plants, and support the sprawling vines as needed.
Tomatoes are the most widely grown crop in home vegetable gardens across the world. Try a few of these heirloom varieties in your garden for a wide array of vibrant colors and flavors.
You’re not alone if you’ve ever wondered, “What are heirloom tomatoes?” They’ve regained popularity in recent years, and once you’ve tried growing heirloom tomatoes, you’ll find that the flavor is incomparable.
Before long, tomato seeds may become some of your most prized family heirlooms.
We hope you enjoyed learning about a few types of heirloom tomatoes, and would appreciate it if you share this article about heirloom tomato varieties with your fellow plant lovers on Pinterest and Facebook.