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.
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.
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.