Heirloom Vs Open Pollinated Vs Hybrid Seeds

As you browse local garden stores, seed catalogs and the internet for garden seeds, you may come across the terms “heirloom,” “open pollinated” and “hybrid” and wonder what they mean or what the difference is.

 

Heirloom- There is a bit of debate about what exactly makes a variety an heirloom but there are a few characteristics that most all seed companies and gardeners recognize:

  • All heirloom plants are open pollinated by bees, wind, animals or other natural ways.  This means that the seeds from heirloom plants can be saved each year and will grow ‘true to type’ each year.  True to type means that the plant will look exactly like the parent plant, having relatively the same plant size, growth habit, fruit color, fruit size and flavor.  
  • All heirloom plants have a traceable history of being handed down from generation to generation.  Many heirloom seed companies require that the variety be 40 years old and have a documented history.  Some heirloom seed companies only require that the seed be entered into their catalog before 1950.
  • Many gardeners say that they prefer the flavor of heirloom varieties of hybrid varieties
  • Some heirloom varieties may not yield as well as their hybrid counterparts

 

Open Pollinated– Open Pollinated varieties have all of the same characteristics when it comes to pollination and being true to type as heirlooms.  However, an open pollinated variety may not have a long known history so it cannot be qualified as an heirloom.

  • Open pollinated seed may be saved from year to year to produce an identical plant 
  • All heirlooms are open pollinated but not all open pollinated varieties are heirloom

 

Hybrid-  A hybrid variety is one that is made by humans by deliberately crossing two different parent plants to achieve a desirable result.  Plant breeders will observe two parent plants with desirable traits and use one to pollinate the other.  This results in a new variety that is genetically different from both parent plants but has been refined to contain the most desirable traits from both plant parents.  You will see these types of hybrids listed as “F1.” This means that it is the first generation following a successful cross-pollination.  

  • Many hybrid plants are sterile or will not produce the same plant the following season because they contain an unpredictable mix of characteristics from the original grandparent plants instead of being most similar to the parent plant
  • Creating a hybrid plant variety is a process that requires a lot of time (10 years or more in most cases!), as well as skill to complete  
  • This does NOT mean that the resulting plant is a genetically modified organism (GMO).  The scientist has not altered the DNA of the plant in non-natural ways 
  • Hybrid seed cannot be saved from year to year
  • Hybrid varieties are deliberately chosen for certain characteristics.  This can be improved disease resistance, improved yield, improved growth habit or any other trait that may be desirable.

 

One type of seed is not necessarily better than another and there is no ‘right’ choice when it comes to what type of seed to buy.  Look for seed varieties that will grow well in YOUR garden.  Look for varieties that YOU love–whether they have exceptional flavor, color, vigor, growth habit, disease resistance or any other trait you find desirable.  

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