Mr VegHead says...

Vegetable musings from Sea Spring Seeds

Tomatoes: hybrids, OPs and heirlooms

Originating in South America, tomatoes have spread from their ancestral home to become one of the most popular vegetables in the world. They are delicious and versatile enough to have wrangled their way into everyday life ­– just think of pizza, a full English breakfast, and a BLT sandwich. The EU Common Catalogue of Varieties of Vegetable Species lists thousands of varieties that can be marketed in the EU, giving an indication of tomato’s importance to commercial and home growers.

With such a huge number of varieties being sold in the EU alone, it is little wonder that tomatoes are a diverse vegetable that takes many different forms. Fortunately, this complexity is easily sorted out, and once done, you will have an easier job of deciding which varieties to grow.

Seed catalogues usually describe tomato varies as either an “F1 hybrid”, “open-pollinated” or “heritage/heirloom”. Because these descriptions often reflect the age of the variety, the breeding method used to create it, and the cost of the seed, they are particularly useful guides through the complexity of choosing which tomato variety to grow.


Hybrid tomatoes

Hybrids of tomatoes are a relatively recent phenomenon – the first one was released in 1946. A hybrid is produced when a genetically uniform parent is cross-pollinated with another genetically uniform parent to create a new variety with desirable traits. Seeds are expensive to produce and so costly to buy, but frugal gardeners take note: plants produced from home-saved seed will not be true-to-type, so new seed must be bought whenever a crop is grown.

Orkado tomato fruit

Orkado is a FI variety, a very productive, uniform salad type tomato

Three delicious cherry tomatoes: Sungold, Apero and Golden Sweet

Three F1 cherry tomato varieties, Sungold, Apero and Golden Sweet.

Open Pollinated (OPS) tomatoes

Varieties identified as open-pollinated are produced by traditional breeding methods. Their genetic make-up is stable from one generation to the next, and gardeners can save seed from their own crop.


 Heirloom tomatoes

The terms ‘heritage’ and ‘heirloom’ are terms often reserved for traditional varieties of vegetables. Other than the fact that they must be open pollinated, there is little consensus on an exact definition. Age certainly plays a role, but even then, how old a variety must be in order to achieve heritage status is open to interpretation.

Though there are plenty of heritage tomatoes being sold in the EU, many have been imported from the States. Like the country they come from, these imports are a diverse bunch that express themselves in eccentric shapes, sizes and colours, making them great fun to grow. Brandywine is a particularly popular variety and has developed a sterling reputation for its eating qualities.  Pruden’s Purple is another American worth considering – it produces large, tasty fruit that mature relatively early.

Prudens Purple heirloom tomato

Prudens Purple tomato is a heirloom variety

Not all heritage tomatoes, however, are American, and British-bred stalwarts such as Moneymaker and Ailsa Craig have been part of the gardening scene for more than 50 years. Though their longevity certainly qualifies them for heritage status, they are somewhat ordinary (round shape and red colour) and not half as interesting to grow as their American counterparts.


For more information on tomato classification see