This past June, I was about to head over to one of the nurseries on American Legion Highway to pick up a flat of something safe, perhaps Big Boy or Early Girl. Then some friends supplied me with some heirloom seedlings they had started. As I hastily stuck them in the ground so I could return to the stressful demands of my day job, a few of the labels fell off, so I'm not completely sure if I can identify them all correctly now.
Just what is an heirloom tomato anyway? Definitions vary, but an heirloom is basically an open-pollinated cultivated plant, not a hybrid, grown from seeds that are at least 50 years old. The plants, known as cultivars, have not been genetically modified, but saved and handed down over generations.
One of my plants is a Brandywine, one of the most popular heirlooms. I picked a couple yesterday but after a little research, I am curious to get back to my plot and inspect the leaves. It turns out that this variety has a distinctive potato leaf, and in his book A Celebration of Heirloom Vegetables, Roger Yepsen warns that if your Brandywine plants display ordinary foliage, they risk cross-pollination, so pull them in order to preserve the genetic background.
I must admit that I don't practice that level of dedication. After all, I didn't even start these tomatoes from seed. But as I bite into my sandwiches, I appreciate the efforts of gardeners to preserve the over 400 varieties of heirloom tomatoes. They're a little more high-maintenance and fragile compared to those hybrids I've grown in the past, not to mention too heavy to stay staked up using traditional metal rings. But the rich taste, non-rubbery texture, and beauty of the fruits make it all worth it.