When shopping for seeds at your local garden center or seed catalog, you may notice some are marked ‘heirloom,” while others are labeled “hybrid.” Have you ever wondered what these terms mean and if one is better for you than the other?
These terms seem to create a lot of confusion among novice and experienced gardeners alike. There are those who swear that heirloom seeds are the only way to go because they think hybrids plants are inferior. On the other hand, many hybrid seed fans are convinced these are a better all-around choice because they tend to be more vigorous producers and are less susceptible to disease and pests.
In reality, there may be room in every garden for both types of plants. To better understand the distinction between heirloom and hybrid seed varieties, it helps to look at how they came to be. it comes down to open-pollination vs careful manipulation.
Open pollination is a form of natural plant reproduction which occurs in one of two ways:
- Cross-pollination (in the context of open-pollination) occurs when two varieties of the same plant species reproduce due to natural pollinators, such as wind, birds or insects. This often happens with squash plants when different varieties are planted close together.
- Self-pollination occurs when a plant possesses both male and female parts and can reproduce by itself. Self-pollinating plants, such as tomatoes, breed true to the parent plant and do not require isolation to avoid contamination from other varieties.
The term “heirloom” refers to older, well-established varieties of open-pollinated plants and seeds. These plants have developed stable genetic characteristics over time. For a time they were considered rare seeds, however, many people now look for and use heirloom seeds to maintain variety in their gardens.
Often, classic heirloom varieties evoke a sense of nostalgia because they were often found in the gardens of older generations. In fact, heirloom seeds can become an important part of a family’s history as they are passed down from one generation to the next. There are several seed purveyors that only handle heirloom varieties. Try Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange, and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Hybrid seeds, on the other hand, are the result of highly controlled cross-pollination between different varieties of the same species of plants. Although cross-pollination can and does occur in nature, the results are too random to be reproduced and marketed on a mass scale.
Therefore, the hybrids you see in stores are not open-pollinated like heirloom varieties but created under controlled conditions.
In order to sell a hybrid variety commercially, its breeding must be carefully monitored in order to ensure the same characteristics are present across all plants sold under that name. Unfortunately, this high level of human involvement in their development causes many to believe hybrid plant varieties are also “genetically modified.”
Are Hybrid Seeds Genetically Modified?
No. Hybrid seeds and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are NOT the same things. Once again, the difference between the two goes back to how they are created. According to NaturalPath.com, as of 2018, GMO seeds are not available to the general public, only to farmers, who must sign a disclosure about how they will use and save the seed. Find out more and get other non-GMO seed company recommendations in this article.
Hybrids are the result of highly controlled cross-pollination between two varieties of the same plant species. The resulting offspring will contain characteristics from each parent plant, just like if the two had crossed in nature.
GMOs are the result of scientific manipulation at the cellular level. In a lab environment, plant cells are altered through the addition of outside substances like pesticides or DNA from other organisms. So-called ‘negative’ genes may also be removed in this process. The end result is a new organism that wouldn’t occur in nature without this type of manipulation.
There is a lot of concern and discussion surrounding the long-term safety of GMOs because they have been introduced into the food supply without any long-term studies to confirm their safety. Today, there is a lot of concern that GMOs may be linked to cancer and many other health problems.
As consumers become more aware of the presence of these substances in commercially processed foods, many are choosing to adopt an organic, whole food diet. In an effort to avoid GMOs, some are also avoiding hybrid plants unnecessarily.
Which is Better: Heirlooms or Hybrids?
There is no right or wrong answer to that question. Heirlooms are often treasured for their delicious flavor and allow you to eat varieties that are not available in the supermarket. On the other hand, many hybrids are prized for their vigor, high garden yields, and superior disease resistance.
As a gardener that wants to save your own seeds, you need to know this big difference between the two.
Heirloom varieties grow true from seeds. You can save and use their seeds year after year and get uniform results.
Hybrids do not offer that type of genetic stability and saving seeds from these plants will not bring you reliable results next year. That puts you at the mercy of the seed companies to purchase seed year after year. Remember that plants grown from the seeds of hybrid plants are unlikely to look or perform like the plant from which the seeds were collected.
So, if you like to collect and grow your garden from seeds, heirlooms are a better choice for you. If not, there is no need to limit your options to just one.