Friday, July 17, 2009


Peter . A lady was talking about heritage tomatoes and I will tell you where to buy them. She has not answered my emails. Can you tell me, I think she was talking about a nursery the western side of melbourne. Laurie
Truth is I have no idea Laurie, but it’s enough to encourage some thoughts on what an heirloom is.
Our sales rep Di has been nagging me about the labels we use on our Tomato seedlings. “They have to have the word Heirloom on them. I don’t care where; it just has to say Heirloom”. Now, I tend to be a little pedantic and the idea of just printing Heirloom worries me. I used to believe that virtually any Open Pollinated plant that had been around for more than 30 years could be described as an Heirloom variety. Now I’m not so confident.
Let’s start with the term Open Pollinated. The nursery trade fairly casually divides plant varieties into 2 categories: OP’s (Open Pollinated varieties) and Hybrids. I’m already getting worried that this newsletter might get too technical so for the sake of simplicity let assume that OP’s are older and cheaper and the Hybrids are new and generally more expensive. Another way to look at is to assume that OP’s are naturally pollinated by bees and Hybrids have endured some human intervention.
Anyone that has grown their own Tomatoes in Victoria will know the classic OP Tomato varieties: Grosse Lisse, Roma, Rouge de Marmande. Most of us are familiar with some very successful hybrid varieties too: Mighty Red (Carmelo), Apollo and Sweet Bite. Recently however the developing interest in culinary gardening has ignited interest in what used to be the preserve of a select group of enthusiasts: Tomatoes with fascinating flavours, colours, textures and sizes. The Heirloom varieties.
When I wrote about the origins of modern Tomatoes a few weeks back, I gave a good deal of credit to European and North American Tomato breeders for developing the large and luscious fruit we know. What was involved in this process? Not much more than a passion for observation and selection of seed from the plants the performed the best, not much different to the Incas and Mayans who had started the process centuries before. To the purist, Heirloom vegetables are those varieties selected by gardeners for their own use and shared with their families and friends (sounds like Cannabis doesn’t it?). That’s it! Convoluted perhaps, but really quite simple. Of course one of the great things about Heirloom varieties is they come with terrific stories: Radiator Charlie paying off his mortgage, the mysterious Cherokee Indians (see image with thanks to Tomatofest) supplying seed to American frontiersmen and the eccentric breeder of ‘modern heirloom’ varieties like Green Zebra, Tom Wagner. If you are really keen follow the link to Tom’s blog, it’s fascinating but pretty technical.
So where do the Classic Varieties like Grosse Lisse fit in? I’ll look at those next week.

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