Is your favorite tomato or pepper an heirloom?


Vegetable plants can be either “heirloom” or “hybrid.” During the gardening season, we often hear about “heirloom” vegetables, and many of the tomatoes and peppers we personally buy are “heirloom” varieties. But what exactly is an heirloom vegetable, and why is it more desirable than a “hybrid” plant?

Plant hybridizing is the process of inventing new plants by combining the best qualities of other plants. Many new varieties occur naturally by cross-pollination. Genetic mutation also happens in nature, when “sports” (non-matching branches or fruits) appear on plants. Breeders cross-pollinate under controlled conditions, or reproduce young plants from sports, to get predictable offspring. The process is a lot like raising pedigreed animals.

Hybridizers patent their varieties for a certain period of years from when the plant is introduced, so raising them from seed or cuttings is actually a violation of patent law. Seeds from hybrid plants will often produce plants that aren’t the same as the parent.

Our definition of an heirloom plant is one that is no longer patented, with seed that will produce the identical plant if you save it from year to year. Some heirloom plants were actually patented hybrids when they were introduced, but their patent has expired. The important thing is that you can save the seed and get the same plant from it.

So why would you want a patented hybrid? The simple answer is that breeders may have improved the original in many ways, like disease resistance, yield, taste, attractiveness of the fruit, growth habit, drought tolerance and other traits. There are hybrids that are terrific for home gardens, and some that are better for commercial growers and shippers; you just have to learn which are which.

Heirloom varieties can taste better or different, or maybe not. There are good and not-so-good heirlooms. Generally, heirloom plants yield about half as much fruit with the same amount of fertilizer, water, and space in the garden. One reason to grow them is that if we all grow only one variety, we are more vulnerable to massive crop failure from some new disease or insect. The more diverse our selection of food plants, the less risk from new pathogens wiping out an entire crop.

Here’s a handy chart listing some tomato and pepper varieties. You’ll notice that most heirloom tomatoes are vine-type plants, meaning they need to be staked. Bush tomato plants are one example of hybridization. If you study this list you’ll see your favorites; probably many of them are hybrids, not heirlooms. Is that a bad thing? Ask yourself: Does your survival depends on saving your tomato and pepper seeds to plant next year?


BeefSteak (Heirloom) Old-fashioned favorite bears big, meaty fruits with rich, full flavor. America’s favorite slicing tomato! 75 days. Vine-type

Better Boy (Heirloom) Guiness record holder—342 lbs. of fruit from one plant! Deep red and meaty, up to a pound each. 75 days. Vine-type.

Big Boy (Hybrid) Good yields of bright red, very flavorful meaty tomatoes. Very popular tomato with home gardeners. 78 days. Vine-type

Brandywine (Heirloom) Winner of countless taste tests. Heavy producer of big, tempting pink-red fruit. 90 days. Vine-type.

Celebrity Bush (Hybrid) Great Flavor in firm, crack-free fruits. Good blight and drought tolerance. 72 days. Bush-type.

Cherokee Purple (Heirloom) Deep-violet colored fruit with intense, rich flavor. 80 days. Vine-type.

Early Girl (Hybrid) There’s no faster-growing, better-tasting tomato! Hugh crops of 4 – 6 oz. Fruit are ideal for canning. 52 days. Vine-type.

German Johnson (Heirloom) Large, prolific plant produces huge, pink beefsteak-type tomatoes. Excellent flavor. 78 days. Vine-type.

Hillbilly Potato Leaf (Heirloom) Gorgeous 1 pound beefsteak fruits are streaked with yellow. Great for slicing. Heavy bearing. 85 days. Vine type

Jet Star (Hybrid) Excellent variety for the home garden. Heavy yields of low-acid, firm, meaty fruit. 72 day. Vine-type

Jubilee (Heirloom) Loads of golden-yellow, low acid fruits are great for canning, salads and cooking. 72 days. Vine-type

Lemon Boy (Hybrid) Large harvests of true lemon-yellow fruits. Easy-to-grow with a mild, yet tangy flavor. 72 days. Vine-type.

Marglobe Improved (Heirloom) Old-time favorite of home gardeners. Great for salads, sandwiches and canning. 72 days. Bush-type.

Mortgage Lifter (Heirloom) Extremely heavy yields of big, low-acid pink tomatoes. Fruits have few seeds and excellent flavor. 83 days. Vine-type.

Mr. Stripey (Heirloom) Plum-sized, two-tone fruits have yellow flesh and a pink center. Mild, low-acid flavor. 80 days. Vine-type.

Oxheart (Heirloom) Old-fashioned favorite. Heart-shaped pink fruits are very meaty with few seeds. Good for slicing. 80 days. Vine-type.

Roma (Heirloom) Abundant producer of plum-shaped fruits perfect for sauces and canning. 80 days. Bush-type.

Rutgers (Heirloom) The original “Jersey” tomato. Unequaled in flavor. Wonderful for canning, cooking and slicing. 75 days. Bush-type.


Black Cherry (Heirloom) Look like luscious black sweet cherries! Vine-type plants produce an abundance of rich-flavored fruit. 75 days.

Grape (Hybrid) Grape-shaped, shiny red globes produced in abundance. Great for fresh eating. 65 days. Vine-type.

Sweet Million (Hybrid) Has been known to produce over 500 cherry-type tomatoes on a single plant. Delicious in salads. 75 days. Vine-type.

Sungold Yellow (Hybrid) These exceptionally sweet, tangerine-orange cherry tomatoes are habit-forming! 57 days. Vine-type.

Yellow Pear (Heirloom) Clusters of pear-shaped, yellow, mild fruits with a very sweet delicious flavor. Perfect for salads. 75 days. Vine-type.


Big Bertha (Hybrid) High performing plants produce loads of glossy, dark green fruits; some reaching a massive 7 inches long. 72 days.

Blushing Beauty Ivory (Hybrid) fruit blushes to light-red to orange-red and finally to a deep scarlet. Fine sweet flavor. 72 days.

California Wonder (Heirloom) Long-time favorite. Expect a big harvest of mild-flavored, sweet peppers. Excellent for stuffing. 75 days.

Chocolate Beauty (Heirloom) Incredibly sweet and delicious. Green fruits ripen to an attractive chocolate-brown color. 67 days.

Golden Summer (Hybrid) Super sweet flavor. Green fruits ripen to an outstanding bright-gold. A real a gourmet treat! 67 days.

Purple Bell (Heirloom) Beautiful rich, deep purple bells with lime-green flesh on compact, bushy plants. Crisp texture and mild, sweet flavor. 75 days.

Red Beauty (Hybrid) Heavy yields of bright-red, sweet bell-type peppers add color to all your dishes. 68 days.

Sweet Banana (Heirloom) Famous for its amazing yields of sweet, mild peppers. Delightful in salads and exquisite when pickled. 68 days.


Anaheim (Heirloom) Mildly hot chili pepper. Plants produce loads of long green fruit that turn brilliant red when fully ripe. 80 days.

Cayenne (Heirloom) Hotter! High yielding hot pepper ripens from dark green to intense red. Bold flavor and medium heat. 75 days.

Garden Salsa (Hybrid) Hot! Mild heat with zingy flavor. Great for making fresh salsa. Best picked green. 73 days.

Habanero Chili (Hybrid) Hottest! Not for the faint of heart. Just one pepper adds spicy heat to an entire dish. Dries and freezes well. 95 days.

Hot Banana (Heirloom) Hot! Also called Hungarian Wax. Canary yellow fruits turn bright red when fully ripe. Great for pickling and drying. 70 days.

Jalapeno (Hybrid) Hot! Dark green fruits are at their hottest when they are allowed to fully ripen to red. 75 days.

Pablano (Hybrid) Mildly hot pepper with spicy bite. Commonly used to make chili powder and salsa. Also good for grilling and stuffing. 75 days.

Serrano (Hybrid) Very hot and pungent pepper with a distinct flavor! Five times hotter than Jalapenos. 75 days.

Tabasco (Hybrid) The pepper used to make the world famous sauce. Pick when red for the spiciest flavor. 95 days.

Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers”. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are online at For more information call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.

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