How to Choose? Open-Pollinated vs. Hybrid Varieties

Red Ace F1 Beets

A hybrid variety, Red Ace F1 Beets

Last week Tom introduced a discussion detailing characteristics of hybrid seeds. As we all consider varieties for the coming season, it is common to wonder about the difference between hybrid and open-pollinated varieties when choosing varieties that are right for you.

First, let’s make sure we’re all speaking the same language. Open-pollinated varieties are those, which if properly isolated from other varieties in the same plant species, will produce seed that is genetically “true to type.” This means that the seed will result in a plant very similar to the parent. Beginning in the early 1900s, plant breeders worked to develop new open-pollinated varieties, using techniques to create a more pure, and thus uniform, genetic line. Heirloom varieties are named open-pollinated strains which either pre-date or are unaltered by the earliest open-pollinated breeding work.

If open-pollinated varieties are allowed to cross within the same species, the resulting seed will be a hybrid. The modern era of plant breeding started when biologists rediscovered Gregor Mendel’s study of genetics. By the 1930s, many hybrid sweet corn varieties were available in the US. In commercial seed production, hybrids come from the careful and deliberate crossing of two different parent varieties, each with traits desired for the offspring. Seed from a hybrid variety can be saved, but will not be true to type.

At High Mowing Organic Seeds, we are of the opinion that both open-pollinated and hybrid varieties deserve a seat at the table. As discussed below, each has its benefits:

The Benefits of Open-Pollinated Varieties

  • Save your seed.  The most obvious benefit to using open-pollinated seeds is the option to produce one’s own seed supply. Some crops, including beans, peas, tomatoes, and lettuce, are self-pollinating, and thus do not even require much isolation for seed saving. Furthermore, by selecting the best plants from which to save seed, anyone can adapt specific variety strains to their region or microclimate.
  • Orange Chard Bunched

    Orange Chard, an open-pollinated variety.

    Less costly.  For a number of reasons, open-pollinated seeds are invariably less expensive than hybrid varieties. For every hybrid, there are actually two distinct lines of genetics that must be maintained, not to mention the careful task of production, which can get quite costly.

  • Flavor.  Few can ignore the superior flavor of many open-pollinated varieties. Many breeders who specialize in creating hybrid varieties for large-scale commercial growers tend to focus on qualities other than flavor, such as storage ability, uniformity, and characteristics more pertinent to processing. Suffice it to say that since the onset of modern hybrid plant breeding, flavor has not been a priority. However, many newer breeding programs, including our own, take flavor into great consideration when selecting and refining hybrid parent lines as well as open-pollinated varieties.

The Benefit of Growing Hybrid Varieties

There’s a reason that hybrid seeds are a part of what we still call “modern plant breeding” despite their long agricultural history. Hybrid seeds are one of the most significant advances in seed production on record. The ability to combine the best traits of separate varieties into one was widely considered the Holy Grail of plant genetics.

  • Disease Resistance.  Most importantly, hybrid seeds offer superior disease resistance. This is because, in the most basic terms, it is easier to breed disease resistance into a hybrid than into an open-pollinated seed. It goes without saying that this is desirable for home gardeners and commercial growers alike.
  • YaYa F1 Carrot

    YaYa F1 Carrot, known for its uniform shape and size.

    Uniformity.  Hybrid seeds offer unequaled uniformity. Commercial growers in particular desire consistency whenever possible. Hybrid seeds produce uniform plants and uniform fruits. This can make cultivation more efficient as well as provide reliability in marketing the end product.

  • Yield and vigor.  Last week Tom mentioned the value of “hybrid vigor.” This term was coined by Charles Darwin in the 1800s to describe the increase in overall vitality found in the offspring of two parent lines of differing genetics. While not all crops demonstrate the effects of hybrid vigor, for those that do, the benefits to the grower can be significant. Yields can double, growth rates increase, seeds emerge more vigorously, and plants can perform better in adverse climatic conditions.

Choose What Works for You!

We hope this furthers your knowledge and brings some clarity to the issue. Keep in mind as you shop for the coming season that we stand behind each and every variety in our catalog, whether open-pollinated or hybrid. Don’t be afraid to try out a couple varieties of a crop to see the differences and chose varieties that work best for you what you need. What matters is what works for you.

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8 Responses to How to Choose? Open-Pollinated vs. Hybrid Varieties

  1. Kc tomato says:

    Some genes when in homologous pairings found in OP result in negative traits. When expressed in heterozygous pairings (hybrid state) these effects are diminished or eliminated. Examples would be nematode resistance and one form if fusarium resistance in tomato. Those genes result in negative traits in the fruit which can effect marketability.

    • lily of the valley says:

      Thank you for your comment. I would have to look up all the words that you wrote, but I feel that heirloom seeds ( not hybrids) are the more healthy, natural way to eat. If I am misinformed please let me know.

      • KCTomato says:

        Nothing really unhealthy about making a hybrid in a conventional manner. They happen in nature. Hybrids that occur can be the source of new genetic diversity. One can actually “save” them if they look at saving the two parents used to create it are crossed to produce seeds every so often.

        I find it unfortunate that some have equated it to some kind of evil mad scientist thing.

        What is cool, and I hope others catch onto, is that in some cases the “right” pairing if parents can create hybrid vigor for flavor. This is what I have been doing and seeking in my work for 20 years.

        Example: two heirloom parent tomatoes are crossed and the resulting F1 hybrid has outstanding, WOW!, knock your socks off flavor. It doesn’t happen all the time but when it does the result is incredible. The interesting thing is that when one tries to “de-hybridize” them over the next several generations, the really big jump in flavor degrades from the hybrid.

        So in such cases the heterozygous combo of genes (think AaBa) has a magic effect for flavor over the homozygous type pairings (AABB, aabb, AAbb etc…).

        Thing is stay open to such a possibility. As long as the parent lines are open sourced lines that are stable – the hybrid can go on.

        • Bryan says:

          One could say that hybridization along with mutation is what created the biodiversity we have in the world today. At what point, if any, can the hybrids become open pollinated/heirloom varieties? Surely, at some point recessive genes may come out, but is there’s no hope for a grower to plant hybrid seeds year after year, discarding the recessive plants and just keeping the desired hybrids?

  2. Karen Tinker says:

    Great article -thank-you. I still have one other important question when I use hybrid seeds what is the effect (if any) on the decline of biodiversity. Since it takes two OP plants in order make a hybrid, does it not take a good bank of open pollinated seeds for a successful hybrid breeding program?

  3. Sandy says:

    Not necessarily a drawback to hybrids, especially in the U.S. where we do have a lot of extra land, but something to think about for “developing” countries: The parents of hybrids are grown for seed, not to produce vegetables. With some plants, that means a year (or several) during which the land, water and labor are dedicated to producing the parent-generation(s) of seeds rather than food. While I’ll still go for disease-resistance in certain varieties, this does reduce the “vigor” or productiveness-per-unit-of-work/land, of some hybrids.
    I don’t know that hybrids are a threat to biodiversity (unlike gene-manipulation), as the original OP varieties must still be kept around and grown out, in order to produce the hybrid seeds.

    • KCTomato says:

      It really doesn’t take up that much more land. Because one is going after the seed, unless the seed itself is the food product, the rest of the fruit/plant can still be used for food.

      After all, each year some resource has to be dedicated to seed anyway. It really doesn’t require more space to make a hybrid (testing and development is another issue). Further with many crops it’s not necessary to grow seed of the parent lines every year. Some only need increase every 3-7 years depending on the crop.

  4. Heather says:

    Thank you for applying time to write “How to Choose?

    Open-Pollinated vs. Hybrid Varieties | High Mowing Organic Seeds’ Blog – The Seed Hopper”. Thanks a ton again -Dianna

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