American Gardener: Heirloom Tomatoes


For the final installment in the American Gardener series, we’re taking a look at our most-anticipated summer crop—heirloom tomatoes. As the peak of tomato season approaches, we’ve been envisioning salads filled with heirlooms of all shapes and colors. Why do we love heirlooms so much? These old-fashioned varieties are sweeter, more flavorful, and more diverse than their hybrid cousins, and they represent an important part of American garden heritage. Recently, we surveyed our plant team about their favorite American heirlooms:

Amana Orange: Named for Iowa's Amana Colonies-- a self-sufficient religious commune founded in 1855-- this large, pale orange variety is flavorful with low acidity, making it a perfect ingredient for summer sandwiches.

Cherokee Purple: Developed over a century ago by the Cherokee tribe, this dark red tomato was rediscovered by a Pennsylvania seed collector in the 1990s, and has since become one of the most popular heirloom varieties thanks to its especially sweet flavor.

Valencia: One of America's rarest tomato varieties, this smooth, bright orange tomato is a family heirloom from Maine, prized for its full, complex taste and meaty texture.

Kolb: Originally cultivated in Storm Lake, Iowa, this bright pink beefsteak yields large, irregularly-shaped tomatoes that can weigh over a pound.

What defines an heirloom vegetable? Though there has long been debate in the horticultural community about heirloom traits, a few qualities are generally agreed upon. One of the more contested characteristics is age—as the year that saw the widespread introduction of hybrid crops, 1951 is the latest cutoff for heirloom cultivars, though some schools of thought argue that heirlooms must be at least 100 years old. Heirlooms must be open pollinated; an heirloom cultivar can be grown from seed and the next generation will be just like its parent. Heirlooms must also bear true seed, meaning that their seeds can be saved for the next planting season. Finally, heirloom varieties must have a generational background, having been grown for more than two generations.

Want to sample some heirlooms for yourself? Join us for our annual Heirloom Tomato Festivals on August 17 in Glen Mills and August 24 in Westport! We'll be celebrating with recipe tastings, DIY workshops, a salsa competition with recipes from the terrain team, and much more.
Throughout the month of July, we’re exploring the history of our nation’s gardens with the American Gardener series. 

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