Open-Pollinated vs. Hybrid vs. Heirloom Seeds: What Do They Mean?

Open-Pollinated vs. Hybrid vs. Heirloom Seeds: What Do They Mean?

differences in Open-Pollinated Vs. Hybrid Vs. Heirloom Seeds

by Matt Gibson & Erin Marissa Russell

Lots of people are concerned about finding out exactly where their food is coming from, and with good reason. Similarly, health-conscious gardeners want to know exactly where the seeds they purchase are from, and what type of seeds they should invest in to insure that they are getting organic, un-modified, chemical-free products. Open pollinated? Hybrid? Heirloom? How do you choose?

Purchasing seeds can be an extra confusing
process with terms like hybrid, GMO-free, heirloom organic, F1 hybrid, and
more, featured on seed packages, especially if one doesn’t know what each of
these terms mean. Many people become confused when checking out seed packages,
and wonder about the differences between all these terms, and why they matter.

Open-Pollinated Seeds

Open-pollinated seeds grow plants with flowers
that are fertilized by bees, moths, birds, bats, wind, and rain.
Open-pollinated seeds produce plants that come back the following year. Some
open pollinated plants are self-pollinators, meaning that the structure of the
flower fertilizes before opening. Open-pollinated varieties grow the same way
each year, though there can be a lot of variation in the plants and fruits, as
they are genetically diverse.

When agriculture first began, around 12,000
years ago, farmers started choosing the qualities of a plant that they liked
the best, such as fruit size, fruit flavor, heat and cold tolerance, growth
habits, and uniformity. Farmers would save the seeds of the plants they
favored, continually growing the same plants year after year. This practice is
known as plant selection, and it can only be done with open-pollinated seeds.

Open-pollinated plants require the wind,
pollinator insects, or the gardener to help pollinate the plant’s flowers so
that they can set fruit and produce seeds for reproduction. In some cases,
plants can produce both male and female flowers, such as with squash or
pumpkins. In this case, moving the pollen from a male flower to the female
flower’s stigma is all that is needed to pollinate the plant.

The seeds of open-pollinated plants, when
planted in subsequent years, will grow the same type of plant that the original
seed grew. Gardeners refer to this as, “true to seed,” growing. For example, if
you have a butternut squash plant, and you make sure that no cross-pollination
occurs, the seeds that you save from your butternut squash plants, will grow
the same butternut squash variety next year.

Self-pollinated plants grow what is called,
“perfect,” flowers, wherein both the pistil and stigma are present within the
same flower. Often, all that is needed for pollination is simple blooming,
which transfers the pollen to the stigma. Some evidence suggests that
self-pollinated plants pollinate better with the help of the wind or from the
assistance of a gardener, who would gently shake the plant from time to time to
help the pollination process. However, self-pollinated plants seem to manage
very well on their own, hence the name.

Cross-pollination is common for any
open-pollinated plant, and can also occur with self-pollinators. For example,
if a bee visits one tomato plant and then lands on another, it could end up
cross-pollinating. If you are trying to save seeds and keep the seeds true, you
will need to isolate your self-pollinating plants, just to be sure.

Hybrid Seeds

Hybrid seeds tend to scare off gardeners due
to the name hybrid, which carries certain connotations related to genetic
mutation and the belief that hybrid seeds are created in a laboratory by evil
men in white lab coats. Though it is sometimes true that hybrid seeds can be
created in a laboratory, hybrids are totally safe and should not receive the
bad name that they get from gardeners. They are, however, very unpredictable
when you are attempting to save seeds for future planting.

Hybrid seeds are made by manually
cross-pollinating plants. Hybrids are bred to increase the desired
characteristics of the plants they create. Hybrids are made to improve yield
size, create greater uniformity, improved color, increased disease resistance,
and more. Hybrid seeds cannot be saved with any assurance of regularity. The
seed from the first generation of hybrid plants does not produce true copies
reliably, so new seeds must be purchased for each planting. Hybrid seeds are
not genetically engineered.

Home gardeners and strict heirloom growers tend
to be scared off by the term hybrid. While heirlooms are certainly a
preference, growing hybrids is not a bad thing. A hybrid is simply the
combining of genetics from two of the same species. For example, if you take a
red hot pepper and pollinate it with a yellow sweet pepper, the offspring (or
hybrid) might be a red sweet pepper.

The confusion comes in with hybrids when they
tend to revert back to their parent types. For seed savers and cultivators who
are trying to preserve genetic biodiversity, a hybrid is a very challenging
undertaking. When seeds are saved from the red sweet pepper and planted again,
the results are random and unpredictable. You may get a few that are red and
sweet, but others will be yellow and hot, some red and hot, and some yellow and
sweet. In short, hybrids are completely safe and do not deserve the bad
reputation that they have been branded with, but they are completely unreliable
when it comes to saving the seeds.

Hybrids are often accompanied by the label F1
or F2, F3, etc. What does the F1 label mean exactly? Well, the F and the number
beside it just references the generation that it came from. F1 is the most
common label, and it just means that the hybrid comes from the first
generation. The further along you go, for example, F4, F5, and F6, the more
stable the hybrid is and less likely it is to revert back to one of the
parents, and the closer it is to becoming an heirloom.

Heirloom Seeds

Using open-pollination, heirloom seeds are
passed down from generation to generation. The changes that occur during their
development happen naturally, over the course of many years. To be considered
an heirloom variety, the species of plant has to be forty years or more, in the
making. During the years of cultivation, heirloom plants develop desirable
traits, such as disease and pest resistance, as well as the ability to thrive
in their specific climates.

The best way to acquire heirloom seeds are
through local seed exchanges, so that you are sure to get heirloom varieties
that are suited to growing in your particular region.  Heirloom seeds also are available for
purchase at most garden centers and nurseries.

Be sure to save heirloom seeds, as they can be
planted year after year. Heirloom seeds are never hybrids or GMO’s. Heirloom
varieties are quite often better-tasting, higher quality, and hardier than
other seed types. More often than not, heirloom seeds have been cultivated
under organic conditions, even when it does not say organic on the package.
That is because it is time-consuming and expensive to get your fruits,
vegetables, and seeds certified with the USDA to put an official label on the
product. 

Don’t Worry About GMO Seeds

GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organisms.
GMO seeds are created in a laboratory for large scale agricultural use.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no chance of accidentally acquiring GMO
seeds for use in home gardens, so there is no reason to worry about getting your
hands on a small amount of GMO seeds. They are usually very expensive and only
available for purchase in large quantities.

Farmers choose GMO seeds for a variety of
reasons, as they are modified to have certain desirable traits. Some GMO seeds
are made to be drought tolerant, some are created to produce seedless
varieties, and others to be resistant to certain pests and diseases. There is
pretty much zero chance that a small-scale gardener is going to stumble upon
GMO seeds.   

What Type Of Seed Should You
Buy?

Organic gardening and gardening with heirloom
varieties are very similar undertakings. Many heirlooms were created before
synthetic fertilizers and pesticides ever hit the market. Most heirloom seeds
are organically grown, though the heirloom label doesn’t guarantee that the
seeds are organic, or that no chemicals were used during the cultivation of the
seeds.

Many heirlooms were introduced before
synthetic fertilizers and pesticides were created. The heirloom label doesn’t
guarantee that the plants will be organic or that no chemicals were used in the
growing process, but it is likely that heirloom seeds, even without the organic
label, are chemical-free. However, if you are worried about toxins, especially
if you are growing produce, seeds with an organic label are the better
choice. 

If you are after specific desired plant
characteristics, such as good production, disease resistance, better storage
capabilities, buy and grow hybrid seeds. If you want to save seeds for future
use, open-pollinated seeds or heirloom varieties are your huckleberry. One of
the biggest upsides to saving seeds is that your plants will be acclimated to
local weather and growing conditions, which will make it hardier than seed
grown elsewhere.

As you look through seed catalogs, take time
to read the descriptions or scan for words like heirloom and open-pollinated.
Read about the history of heirlooms. Hybrids often have F1 in the name or below
it. The descriptions should say what plants were crossed to create the hybrid
variety, as well as any desirable traits, such as disease resistance. Seed
catalogs should give you lots of choices. First, figure out what you need, then
do some research and make an educated purchase.

Common Questions and
Answers About Open-Pollinated Versus Hybrid Versus Heirloom

Are heirloom seeds open
pollinated?

All heirloom seeds are open pollinated.
However, not all open pollinated seeds are heirloom varieties. Seeds that are
open pollinated have been pollinated via natural means, which may include
insects, wind, birds, or any natural method. Heirloom varieties of plants have
been saved and passed down among members of a family or community.

Are hybrid seeds
organic?

Hybrid seeds can be organic, but not all hybrid seeds are organic. Whether or not hybrid seeds are organic depends on whether they were grown, harvested, and processed according to the USDA Organic Standards for crops. You can review the USDA Organic Standards at the USDA website.

Can hybrid plants
reproduce?

It is possible for hybrid plants to reproduce,
but it is rare, as many hybrid plants are sterile. This sterility often occurs
when hybrid plants are created naturally, and when people develop hybrid plants
commercially, they sometimes develop them to be sterile on purpose. When hybrid
plants are capable of reproducing, the next generation is not always true to
type as it is with open pollination.

Can you save hybrid
seeds?

Many hybrid plants are sterile, but if your hybrid
produces seeds, you can save them to plant the next season. Be aware that
hybrid seeds, when viable, grow into a new generation of plants that sometimes
aren’t “true to type,” which is to say they aren’t always exactly like their
parent plants. This element of unpredictability is why you’ll sometimes read
that the seeds of hybrid plants can’t be saved or shouldn’t be saved. But as
long as you’re aware that the offspring of hybrid plants won’t necessarily grow
true to type and may be sterile, there’s no reason not to save hybrid seeds. In
fact, due to “hybrid vigor,” the seeds of hybrid plants are more likely to
survive and are more healthy and strong as they grow than seeds of plants that
are not hybrids.

Can you save open
pollinated seeds?

The seeds of open pollinated plants can be
saved, and the offspring of open pollinated seeds are known for growing “true
to type,” meaning they can be depended on to reflect the traits of the parent
plants.

Do f1 hybrids produce
seeds?

F1 hybrids are often sterile, and when they do
produce seeds, the offspring are often not true to type (meaning they do not
reliably reflect the traits of their parent plants). But f1 hybrids that are
not sterile do produce seeds. The offspring of those seeds display “hybrid
vigor,” meaning they are more likely to survive and grow to be healthier and
stronger than their non-hybrid counterparts.

Do heirloom seeds
reproduce?

Heirloom plants reproduce seeds that can be
saved. Be aware that because of open pollination, heirlooms you intend to save
seeds from should not be planted near other plants due to risk of
cross-pollination. Select the healthiest, most productive plants to save seeds
from, as the next generation of plants will reflect the traits of the parent
plant.

Allow plants to mature through their fruiting
stage, and then they will set seed near the end of the season. Permit the seeds
to ripen on the plant until the blooms have faded and shriveled, or for plants
with pods, the pods darken and dry out. When seeds are ripe, they darken from
pale cream to brown. Once most of the seeds have ripened, you can begin
collecting them.

Seeds from beans, carrots, corn, onions, peas,
herbs, and most flowers require a dry collection method. Leave the seeds to dry
on the plant as long as you can. Then collect them and spread the seeds in a
single layer on a screen or paper towel in a safe, dry location with good
ventilation. If seeds are too small and light to be dried on a screen, you can
either use a paper towel or place the seed heads in a paper bag. Seeds will
fall to the bottom of the bag as they dry, and you can eventually remove the
other plant debris.

Seeds from fleshier fruits and flowers, such
as cucumbers, melons, squash, tomatoes, and roses, require a wet collection
method. Scoop the seeds from the fruit and place in a jar or bucket with a
small amount of warm water and soak for two to four days, stirring daily. At
the end of the two to four days, the viable seeds you should keep will have
sunk to the bottom of the container. Seeds that are not viable and should be
discarded will float to the top of the container, along with other plant
debris. Pour off the water along with the seeds that aren’t viable, plant
debris, and mold. Spread the viable seeds from the bottom of the container in a
single layer on a screen or paper towel. Store your seeds in a safe, dry
location that gets good ventilation as they continue to dry.

Whether you use a wet or dry collection method, allow the seeds to dry out completely before moving them to a glass jar or envelope for storage. Label the seeds with the plant type and the date. Freeze your container for two days to kill any garden pests that may be hitching a ride. Move them to a cool, dry place like your refrigerator for long-term storage. Seeds can be stored for up to three years, but seeds from some types of plants must be used within one year. Refer to our Seed Life Chart to find out how long you can expect a particular kind of seeds to last.

How are hybrid seeds
made?

Hybrid seeds are the result of cross-breeding
two plants that are not genetically similar. The male plant (or pollen parent)
pollinates and fertilizes the female plant (seed parent), which sets f1 seeds.

How do you name a
hybrid plant?

Hybrid plants are named for the genus followed
by an x and the name given to the hybrid variety. For example, a hybrid air
plant might be named Tillandsia x Redy.

How long can you keep
heirloom seeds?

As with all seeds, heirloom seeds can last from one to three years, depending on the type of plant the seeds came from. If you want a specific estimate for how long you can expect a particular type of seeds to last, you can refer to our Seed Life Chart.

Is open pollinated the
same as heirloom?

All heirloom plants are open pollinated, but
the terms do not have the same meaning, and not all open pollinated plants are
heirloom. A plant that is open pollinated has been permitted to be pollinated
by natural means, such as insects, wind, or birds. Heirloom plant varieties
have been passed down through a family or community.

What are f1 and f2
generations?

The f1 and f2 generations are names given to
certain generations when breeding plants. The first set of parent plants is the
P, or parent, generation. The F1 generation stands for first filial, and this
generation includes all offspring of the parent plants. The F2, or second
filial, generation includes all the offspring of the F1 plants.

What are the advantages
of using hybrid seeds?

Gardeners report many advantages to using
hybrid seeds in the garden. Hybrid plants are reportedly easier to grow and
grow more quickly than their non-hybrid counterparts. Gardeners also say that
hybrid plants bounce back from stressful situations more readily. Hybrid plants
are often cultivated to have characteristics gardeners may find desirable, such
as disease resistance, larger fruit, higher yield, or more durability in
shipping.

What are the
disadvantages of hybrid seeds?

While hybrid varieties are bred to have
certain benefits, this hands-on cultivation tends to let other qualities fall
to the wayside. For example, gardeners note that hybrids tend to be more
expensive, less nutritious, and less flavorful than heirloom varieties. Hybrids
also tend to be sterile, and those that are not sterile do not produce true to
type, so seed-saving is impractical with hybrid plants. That means new seed
must be bought at the beginning of each season. The genetic uniformity of hybrid
plants also can be problematic in the face of certain challenges, such as
extreme weather conditions or the introduction of a new disease or garden pest.

What are open
pollinated seeds?

Seeds that are open pollinated come from
plants that have been pollinated via natural means, such as birds, wind, or
insects. Open pollinated seeds are known for producing a new generation of
plants that are “true to type,” meaning the offspring reflect the
characteristics of the parent plants.

What are the benefits
of heirloom seeds?

Heirloom plants have a variety of benefits
that lead some gardeners to choose heirloom seeds for their gardens. Heirloom
vegetables are open-pollinated (as opposed to the selective crossbreeding that
creates hybrids) and have been handed down among members of a family or
community.

Heirloom seeds tend to cost less than hybrid
seeds, and collected seeds from heirloom plants produce a new generation that’s
true to type. That means not only do gardeners save money when they purchase
heirloom seeds—if they collect those seeds to plant the next season, they don’t
need to purchase seeds again after the first expense. Because heirloom fruits
and vegetables aren’t as uniform as hybrids, an heirloom harvest won’t all
ripen at once. That means gardeners of heirlooms have a longer period of time
to enjoy the fruits of their labor and are less likely to wind up with a bumper
crop they can’t eat that goes to waste.

Many gardeners choose to grow heirloom
varieties because they say heirloom fruit and vegetables are more flavorful
than hybrids. Heirlooms are also often more nutritious than their hybrid
counterparts. Locally adapted varieties of heirloom seeds are likely to have
developed resistance to diseases and insects prevalent in your region, and
they’ve also evolved to be at home in your specific climate.

What does f1 hybrid
mean?

An F1 hybrid is a plant in the first filial
generation of selective crossbreeding to create a hybrid, which are the
offspring of the parent plants (P generation.) Offspring of two F1 plants are
referred to as the F2 generation.

What does f2 hybrid
mean?

F2 is the second filial generation of plants,
the offspring of the F1 generation. (F1 are the offspring of the parent plants,
the P generation.) As hybrids, the F2 generation is the result of selective
crossbreeding.

What does f1 stand for?

F1 stands for first filial, as the F1
generation encompasses all plants that are offspring of two particular parent
plants (the P generation).

What does heirloom open
pollinated mean?

Open pollinated plants rely on natural means
of pollination, such as wind, insects, or birds. All heirloom plant varieties
are open pollinated. Heirlooms are varieties that have been handed down among
members of a community or family for generations.

What is a hybrid
offspring?

Hybrid offspring come from parents that are
genetically different. In other words, a hybrid offspring is the result of
cross-breeding two different varieties of plant in order to create a third
variety, the hybrid.

What is an example of a
hybrid plant?

Meyer lemons are a hybrid—the result of
cross-breeding lemons and mandarin oranges. Better Boy tomatoes are a hybrid
variety that’s been cultivated to resist the fusarium wilt, verticillium wilt,
and nematodes that can plague gardeners of tomatoes. They’re also optimized to
produce large tomatoes. One single Better Boy tomato can weigh in at one pound.

What is an open
pollinated variety?

Open pollinated varieties of plants are those
that rely on natural forces (wind, birds, insects) for pollination.

What is hybrid plant
breeding?

Hybrid plant breeding is the selective
cross-breeding of different plant varieties for the purpose of encouraging
desired traits. Hybrids may be developed to be resistant to certain diseases,
optimize harvest, or be larger or smaller than the average plant.

What is the difference
between f1 and f2 generation?

The F1 generation of plants consists of all
the offspring of the parent plants (the P generation). The F2 generation of
plants consists of all the offspring of the F1 generation.

What is the difference
between heirloom and heritage seeds?

There is no difference between heirloom and
heritage seeds. The terms are used interchangeably.

What is the difference
between heirloom and hybrid plants?

Heirloom plants have been passed down among
members of a family or community and rely on open pollination (in other words,
they are pollinated by natural forces like birds, insects, or wind). Hybrid
plants are selectively cross-bred to encourage a desired trait, such as large
fruits or resistance to disease. Cross-pollination can result in natural
hybrids as well.

What is the offspring
of the f1 generation called?

All the offspring of the F1 generation are
members of the F2 generation. The F1 generation includes all the offspring of
the parent plants (P generation).

Why are hybrid plants
sterile?

 In nature, hybrid plants are often sterile as a result of polyploidy, when abnormal cell division causes offspring of hybrid plants to have more than two sets of chromosomes. Hybrid plants can reproduce when a polyploid hybrid breeds with another polyploid plant that has an even number of chromosomes and the pair can produce new cells that have a balanced number of chromosomes.

Want to learn more about open-pollinated, hybrid and heirloom seeds?

Texas A&M Agrilife Extension covers Hybrid Varieties and Saving Seed

AgriQuest covers Methods for Hybrid Seed Production

Annie’s Heirloom Seeds covers What is the Difference Between Heirloom and Organic Seeds

Biosciences for Farming in Africa covers What are Disadvantages of F1 Hybrids?

Seed Savers Exchange covers What’s the Difference? Open-Pollinated, Heirloom, and Hybrid Seeds

Dave’s Garden covers Definition of F2 Hybrid

University of Illinois Extension covers Saving Seed from the Garden

Gardening Know How covers F1 Hybrid Seeds

Gardening Know How covers Non-Hybrid Seeds Versus Hybrid

Green Upside covers Advantages and Disadvantages of Hybrid Seeds

Grow Organic covers Organic Seeds and Heirloom Seeds

Heritage Harvest Seed covers Heirloom/Heritage Seed Glossary

High Mowing Organic Seeds covers How to Choose Between Open-pollinated and Hybrid Varieties

Horticulture Magazine covers F1 Hybrid Varieties

Hunker covers Cross-Breeding Flowers and Vegetables

Livestrong covers Hybrid Foods

MI Gardener covers The Difference Between GMO, Hybrid, Organic and Heirloom Seeds

Modern Mag covers The Science Inside GMO Seeds

Mother Earth News covers Saving Hybrid Seeds

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My Fearless Kitchen covers Why Don’t Farmers Save Seeds

Natures’s Path Organic covers Difference Between Heirloom, Open Pollinated and Hybrid Organic Seeds

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Virginia Tech University covers What’s the Difference Between F1 and F2?

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