What Makes A Tomato An Heirloom Tomato?

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An heirloom is a thing handed down from generation to generation. Is an heirloom tomato then a tomato plant that’s been handed down from generation to generation?   
 
Sort of. An heirloom tomato is an open-pollinated tomato whose seed grows “true to type” — meaning, if you plant Cherokee Purple seed, you’re going to get Cherokee Purple plants. From generation to generation, that seed will stay true (and so, you could argue, the plant gets “passed down”). Some heirloom tomatoes have, in fact, stayed within one family and so are heirlooms in the truest sense of the word. Other heirloom tomatoes circulate widely.  
 
The term “heirloom” was applied to tomatoes (and plants in general) to distinguish traditional varieties (and techniques) from the F1 hybrids of modern seed industry. Seed from an F1 hybrid plant reverts to something in its parentage and so does not stay true from generation to generation. Through years of selection, some hybrids have been “stabilized” or “dehybridized” so that their seeds are true to type.   
 
As Phelan from points out, , so the distinction between “hybrid” and “heirloom” is more about age (old vs. new) and hybridizing technique (classically bred vs. GMO).   
 
Speaking of age, an heirloom is an old thing. How old does a tomato have to be before it’s an heirloom? It’s debatable. Some say that to be an heirloom, a tomato must have originated before 1940, when the hybrid seed business began to take off. Others insist that you can’t put a date on a label that has more to do with technique than time. To get in on the debate about what is and isn’t an heirloom, check out Gardenweb’s Growing Tomatoes forum

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