An important concept for every gardener to know is the difference between open pollinated and hybrid seeds!
So what are these two types of seeds?
- Open pollinated seeds
- Hybrid seeds.
You will also often hear about heirloom seeds. But heirloom seeds are actually just open pollinated seeds that have been around for a long time. So for purposes of this post I will use the term open pollinated when referring to heirloom seeds as well.
What is the difference between Open Pollinated and Heirloom seeds?
Really there isn’t a difference if all you are concerned about is being able to plant the seeds you harvest next year. Open pollinated and Heirloom seeds work the same. The definition of an Heirloom seed is a little different depending upon which group you talk to. One generally accepted definition is that they are a plant variety that is stable and breeds true to type and has been cultivated for at least 50 years. Other organizations are more stringent in the definition of an Heirloom seed in that they want to see a history (documented if possible) of the seeds being past down from generation to generation.
But my simple definition is Heirlooms are just open pollinated seeds that are older and have been past down from gardeners of the past!
But remember, for purposes of comparing the difference between open pollinated and hybrid seeds. Heirlooms and Open Pollinated seeds are one in the same.
Open pollinated seeds
Let’s start out by talking about open pollinated seeds. Basically an open pollinated seed is a seed that you can plant this year let the plant grow to maturity and then harvest the seeds from that plant. If you then plant the seeds you harvested this year again next year you will get the same plant.
Now that is very simple. There is, of course, more to it than that. Seed saving can actually be a little complicated depending on what plant you are trying to save seeds from. But that is the general concept. If you save seed from an open pollinated plant and there has not been any cross pollination from another plant (of the same family) then you can expect the seed will produce the same plant next year.
Open pollinated plants tend to be older (meaning they have been cultivated for many years) and less tolerant to pests and diseases. But that is not always the case. There are some very good strong open pollinated varieties out there.
Open pollinated plants also tend to be locally adapted. This means that some varieties of plants will do very well in your area. But if you send me some seeds, that plant may not do well at all in my location. A good place to look for locally adapted plant varieties would be on the website for your local extension agency.
Any good seed company will specify in their catalog or website that a seed is open pollinated. Often you will see an (op) next to the plant name, or they will specify they are an heirloom seed.
Most of the seeds I plant in my garden are open pollinated, this is the case for a few of reasons:
- I do save seeds, I’ve been slowly learning how to practice seed saving over the years and it is actually a fun thing to do.
- I have a few plants in my garden that were originally given to me as gifts from other gardeners, we fell in love with those varieties, but back in the day I wasn’t very good about keeping track of variety names. A good example is a red lettuce I was given about 10 years ago. This friend gave me some seeds to try but I never got the variety name from him, I just know they were open pollinated. We call the lettuce Larry’s red (named after the guy that gave it to me), but if I want to keep growing Larry’s red I have to save seeds every few years, because I’ve lost track of Larry.
- I just like the idea of being able to save my own seeds, I don’t always do it. In fact most years I may only save seeds from one or at the most 2 plants. But there is some comfort for me in knowing if I ever really needed to, I could reproduce seeds to keep my garden going.
A hybrid seed is a seed that has been bread by a seed producer for a very specific trait. Taste, color, size, resistance to disease, compact plant size and frost tolerance are some of the many traits plant breeders are trying to create.
Hybridization is achieved by cross pollinating two different parent plants to produce an off spring that has those desired traits. So for example, plant breeders cross two different tomatoes to get one of our favorite hybrids, Celebrity. Or plant breeders may cross a red flower and a white flower to get a pink. These are simplified examples but you get the idea.
Hybrids have many advantages in the garden. In particular many hybrids have added resistance to disease or they may produce higher yields.
But nearly all the time those gains also come with a cost. That cost is the inability of hybrids to produce seeds that will grow true to type. Most of the traits bread in to hybrid plants are not “stable” past the first generation of seed.
What does this mean for the home gardener? Well, it means that if you are growing hybrid plants you have to buy new seeds every year. You can’t save the seeds from a hybrid plant. If you do save hybrid seeds and plant them next year you will not get the same plant. Usually the second generation of seeds will revert back to one of the parent plants.
To summarize; the difference between open pollinated and hybrid seeds is the the ability to save seeds.
For some people this really isn’t a big deal, if you are not concerned with saving your own seed then hybrid may often be a fantastic choice. For those of you only interest in growing veggies the difference between open pollinated and hybrid seeds doesn’t really matter.
But for others, being able to save seeds is a big deal. For me seed saving is a fun practice that I am learning more and more about. It’s just another reason why I love gardening.
For others saving seeds is a serious business!! The genetic diversity of our food crops is shrinking. Many regionally adapted varieties are disappearing as more and more farmers and gardeners opt for the hybrid varieties. There are many organizations around the world dedicated to saving these varieties, and lots of gardeners are getting involved.
If you are interested in helping out, the seed savers exchange is a great place to start. You can learn more at this address.