Choosing Tomato Varieties: The ABCs of Hybrid, Heirloom and Open-Pollinated

| 2/16/2016 10:33:00 AM

Tags: heirloom tomatoes, tomatoes, heirloom vegetables, Craig LeHoullier, North Carolina,

In my last post, I began to provide some detail about some basic tomato terminology. Understanding the basics leads to more successful gardens – and happier gardeners. With so many tomato choices, confusion can easily set in. Since just about all gardens contain tomatoes, and most gardeners crave them, a successful harvest every year is a really important goal. Part of that success can be achieved by selecting the right varieties for our climate, soil, and garden type – this contributes to a good start.

Now that we’ve discussed growth habit in my last post – indeterminate, determinate and dwarf tomato varieties – the next place to go is clarifying the three terms that describe the genetics of the varieties at the highest level. Understanding what the terms hybrid, heirloom and open-pollinated mean help to set not only expectations and possibilities, but define the “type” of tomato garden – such as high production, living history, and rainbow of colors and flavors.


A tomato variety that is genetically stable – one that can be grown reproducibly from saved seed – is called an open-pollinated variety. The genetic stability of such a variety allows it to be passed on and be in existence for decades or centuries (unless it becomes cross pollinated along the way, but that’s another story).

Open pollinated variety Speckled Roman

Heirloom or Heritage

A special type of open-pollinated variety has old bones; it has stood the test of time. This type of variety is known as an heirloom, or heritage, type. Determining the particular age that defines an heirloom is arbitrary and ever-changing, and there is likely lively disagreement among heirloom tomato enthusiasts. I like to use the date of 1950 as an easy to remember guideline, and I will tell you why I chose that date below. Heirlooms can be either family heirlooms, handed down from generation to generation, or old commercial varieties that managed to survive to this day.

Most heirloom and open pollinated varieties are indeterminate in growth habit. The gene for “self- topping” (determinate growth) didn’t appear until the 1920s. Though the dwarf growth habit has been known in the U.S. since the 1850s, dwarf growing varieties continue to be quite rare.

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