Heirloom and Heritage Seeds

Heirloom and heritage seeds

noun: heirloom; plural noun: heirlooms
  1. a valuable object that has belonged to a family for several generations.
      denoting a traditional variety of plant or breed of animal that is not associated with large-scale commercial agriculture.
      "his garden is filled with heirloom vegetables"
Origin: late Middle English: from heir + loom (which formerly had the senses ‘tool, heirloom’).

Types of tomatoes:

  • "Slicing" or "globe" tomatoes are the usual tomatoes of commerce, used for a wide variety of processing and fresh eating.
  • Beefsteak tomatoes are large tomatoes often used for sandwiches and similar applications. Their kidney-bean shape, thinner skin, and shorter shelf life makes commercial use impractical.
  • Oxheart tomatoes can range in size up to beefsteaks, and are shaped like large strawberries.
  • Plum tomatoes, or paste tomatoes (including pear tomatoes), are bred with a higher solids content for use in tomato sauce andpaste, and are usually oblong.
  • Pear tomatoes are obviously pear-shaped, and are based upon the San Marzano types for a richer gourmet paste.
  • Cherry tomatoes are small and round, often sweet tomatoes generally eaten whole in salads.
  • Grape tomatoes, a more recent introduction, are smaller and oblong, a variation on plum tomatoes, and used in salads.
  • Campari tomatoes are also sweet and noted for their juiciness, low acidity, and lack of mealiness. They are bigger than cherry tomatoes, but are smaller than plum tomatoes.

What is an heirloom plant?

An heirloom plant, heirloom variety, heritage fruit or heirloom vegetable is an old cultivar that is maintained by gardeners and farmers, by handing down seeds from generation to generation through open-pollination.

In order to understand the great diversity of heritage or heirloom plants we would like to look at the definition of a few terms: open-pollinated, cross-pollination, self-pollination, hybrid, cultivar, variety, F1 and GMO.


Occurs when pollen from one flower on a plant pollinates the same flower or other flowers of the same plant (or individual). eg. In the case of tomatoes, the male and female parts are contained in the same flower so you only require one plant to set seed or create fruit.


Occurs when pollen is taken from the stamen of one plant and is placed on the stigma of another flower from another plant of the same species. This can be done by insects, wind, water and by humans. eg. You have two tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicon) in your yard: a bee visits one flower from plant 1, collecting its pollen then flies to plant 2 and leaves some of the pollen behind. This allows the plant to set seed. Cross-pollination can happen between different cultivars and varieties, and often results in new traits expressed. 


(Open-pollination) generally refers to seeds that will "breed true." When the plants of an open-pollinated variety or cultivar self-pollinate, or are pollinated by another representative of the same variety or cultivar, the resulting seeds will produce plants roughly identical to their parents. eg. You have two tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicon) in your yard, cultivar 'Native Sun'. Once pollinated, the seed next year will create 'Native Sun' tomatoes.


Or hybridization is the product of crossing of two or more species. eg. You have two tomatoes in your yard: one is Solanum lycopersicon the other is Solanum pimpinellifolium. If you cross-pollinated these two species the resulting hybrid would be Solanum lycopersicon x pimpinellifolium (if the seed is viable). 

F1 hybrids 

Are the first generation seeds produced by crossing two genetically different plants to produce a hybrid. To maintain the traits the original parents must be re-crossed each year as this type of pollination does not have stable off-spring. Typically F1 hybrids are created by means of controlled pollination (isolating populations, using pollination bags, etc.) and are sometimes pollinated by hand. See above.

A cultivar 

Plant or grouping of plants selected for desirable characteristics that can be maintained by propagation. Most cultivars have arisen in cultivation but a few are special selections from the wild and are carefully bred and selection for colour and form.


Refers to a taxonomic rank below that of species and subspecies, above form, and is mistakenly used interchangeably with cultivar. Plant varieties exist as a natural process and have not been selected by humans in plant breeding projects (eg. wild type).

GMO or genetically modified organism 

Any organism whose genetic material has been altered using human engineering techniques. eg. removing or inserting genes into the tomato genome to decrease the rate of fruit ripening, thus increasing its self life. The transgenic tomato (FlavrSavr) had a "deactivated" gene. This meant that the tomato plant was no longer able to produce polygalacturonase, an enzyme involved in fruit softening. The idea was that tomatoes could be left to ripen on the vine and still have a long shelf life, thus allowing them to develop their full flavour. Normally, tomatoes are picked well before they are ripe and are then ripened artificially.

Transgenic organism

Created by forcing genes from one species into another entirely unrelated species. This should not be confused with the more general way in which "GMO" is used to classify genetically altered organisms, as typically GMOs are organisms whose genetic makeup has been altered without the addition of genetic material from an unrelated organism. eg. a gene from a fish is inserted into a strawberry so it can withstand freezing; taking a gene from Agrobacterium (a plant parasite) and inserting it into the tomato genome to increase its resistance to this pathogen.