I hear this occasionally. Seeds are seeds, right? Just buy some and plant them.
Unfortunately, it isn’t quite that simple. If you begin to study seed packages, seed catalogs, and gardening books, you are soon overwhelmed with the complexity. One of the biggest points of confusion for most people is the difference in seeds labeled as a hybrid, heirloom, or open-pollinated.
Plant breeders create hybrids by taking two varieties of the same plant and cross-pollinate them. They may do this hundreds or thousands of times until they get across the produces the desired traits from the two-parent plants without any negative or unwanted traits. They may be cross-breeding for color, size, disease resistance or shorter maturity dates. The downside to raising plants from hybrid seeds is that you can’t save the seeds. Plants grown from hybrid seeds will not be true to type in the next generation of plants. That means they won’t show the characteristics for which the parent plants were bred, reverting to one of the other of the two plants that were cross-pollinated to create the hybrid.
Plants grown from open-pollinated seeds will reproduce naturally and true to type without any help from humans. Open-pollinated seeds may cross-pollinate if planted close to other varieties of the plant in the same family. If you have ever planted hot peppers too close to your sweet peppers, you may have experienced a bit of that. If you are careful about planting distances, you can count on open-pollinated seeds to reproduce reliably from seeds you save from season to season. Seed saving is a large part of many gardener’s methods and is why many gardeners prefer to plant open-pollinated seeds. Those who grow vegetables often comment that open-pollinated vegetables taste better than hybrids.
Many gardeners prefer heirloom seeds, especially vegetable gardeners. There are cases where a variety has been passed down in a family for generations. There are places where certain varieties are considered community property. These communities and families carefully nurture and save seed from season to season. Heirlooms typically have a “history.” One organization, the Seed Savers Exchange, defined heirlooms as cultivars that have been saved and shared by generations of home gardeners. In most cases, the seeds have a lineage that can be traced back more than 50 years (in some cases, hundreds of years). All heirloom seeds are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated seeds are heirlooms.
So What do I chose?
The big question. Each type has its pros and cons. A lot of your decision depends on what you want and your tastes, literally. Hybrids often sprout healthier plants that produce more fruit or flowers. The cross-pollinating is done to bring certain traits to the hybrid, and it is these traits that gardeners want, particularly disease and insect resistance. If you are a seed saver or trader, then your choices are open-pollinated or heirlooms, which will reproduce true to type. Those who value the historical value of heirlooms seem to be more intent on keeping the diversity of the genome intact by carrying the heirloom variety and making it available to others.
It comes down to making informed choices and understanding what the terminology means to you as a gardener.
Links and Resources
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