Types of Seeds: Heirloom, Hybrid, and Open-Pollinated

To save seeds that are healthy, vigorous, and true-to-form, it’s important to understand the different seed types available in today’s market.

  • ‘Cherokee Purple’ is an heirloom tomato that has roots with the Cherokee tribe that pre-date 1890. It’s known for its beautiful color, superb sweet flavor, and large-sized fruit.
    Photo by Brian Dunne (bbdunne@southern.edu)
  • ‘Charger’ is a hybrid tomato with wide adaptability and resistance to many diseases, such as Alternaria stem canker, gray leaf spot, and tomato yellow leaf curl virus. This cultivar is produced commercially for mature green and vine-ripe markets.
    Photo by Sakata
  • ‘Green Giant’ is an open-pollinated potato-leaf variety first selected from an unexpected seedling by Reinhard Kraft and then popularized by gardener Craig LeHoullier after 2004. The large emerald-green fruits commonly exceed 1 pound, are known for their incredible flavor, and stay pure green even when fully ripe.
    Photo from www.RareSeeds.com

One of the more important decisions every gardener makes is the choice among hybrid, heirloom, and non-heirloom open-pollinated seed cultivars. Each of these seed types has something to offer, depending on the gardener’s needs, interests, and values.

For seed-saving purposes, the most significant distinction among these types of seed is that gardeners can save true-to-type seed from open-pollinated and heirloom cultivars, but not from hybrids. Following are a few more distinctions that might help you decide what seed types to grow in seasons to come.

Defining Open-Pollinated, Heirloom, and Hybrid

Open-pollinated plant cultivars are pollinated by insects, birds, wind, or other natural mechanisms. Open-pollinated plants may also be pollinated by hand to help ensure that the seed remains pure. Because there are fewer restrictions on the flow of pollen among individuals, large populations of open-pollinated plants tend to be more genetically diverse. This in turn can allow individuals in the population to more readily adapt to local growing conditions. As long as pollen isn’t shared among different cultivars within the same species, the seed produced will remain true-to-type year after year.

Heirloom plants are time-tested and have a history of being passed down within a family or community, similar to the generational sharing of heirloom jewelry or furniture. An heirloom plant cultivar must be open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated plants have been passed down long enough to be considered heirlooms. While some companies create heirloom labels based on dates (such as a cultivar that is more than 50 years old), the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) defines heirlooms as cultivars that have been saved and shared by generations of home gardeners.

Hybrid plant cultivars are often created through a controlled method of pollination, in which the pollen of one species or cultivar is transferred by human intervention to fertilize the flowers of another species or cultivar. Hybridization can occur naturally, but commercially available hybrid seed, often labeled as F1, is deliberately created to elicit desired traits in the resulting plants. The first generation of a hybrid plant also tends to grow better and produce higher yield than the parent cultivars due to a phenomenon called “hybrid vigor.” However, any seed produced by F1 plants is genetically unstable and shouldn’t be saved for use in following years unless you are looking to develop new cultivars. The resulting F2 generation of plants won’t be true-to-type and may be less vigorous. Gardeners who use hybrid plant cultivars must develop or purchase new seed every season to produce plants that exhibit the same characteristics. It is possible for advanced growers to eventually stabilize hybrids and develop them into open-pollinated cultivars by growing, selecting, and saving the seed over many generations.

While some folks mistakenly equate hybrid seed with new, modern, and genetically modified (GM) seed, humans have been creating plant hybrids for thousands of years. And only within the past 33 years have some modern hybrids and non-hybrid plants been developed using advanced GM technology.



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