Hybrid and Open-Pollinated: What's the
Gardeners often come across the
word "hybrid" to describe seeds in catalogs and on packets. If a seed isn't
specifically described as hybrid you can assume it's a nonhybrid, more commonly
called "open-pollinated" (abbreviated OP). Which type of seed is better for home
gardeners? As is so often the case, the answer is, "It depends."
In the seed trade, the term "hybrid" describes seed that results from the
controlled cross-breeding of two different but very specific varieties
("breeding lines") of the same plant. The male pollen is transferred to the
female pistil, pollination occurs, and a seed is formed. This seed is designated
the F1 hybrid.
The benefits of hybrids are numerous. Plant breeders are able to carefully
introduce traits such as improved disease resistance, earlier maturation, and
better yield. The drawbacks? Hybrid seed tends to be a bit more expensive than
non-hybrid. More importantly, hybrid seed doesn't "come true." That means that
if you plant a hybrid seed, let it grow and produce flowers and seeds, then
plant those seeds, the resulting plants may not be identical to the parent
plant. This next generation may have poorer quality yield, for example, or
produce flowers in a different color. The offspring will be the same species,
but that's about all you can predict.
Before the advent of hybridization, all plants were open-pollinated. The genetic
composition of most open-pollinated plants is relatively stable -- enough so that
the offspring plants will most likely resemble the parents. There will be some
variability among the plants, but not as much as with the offspring of hybrids.
So one benefit of growing open-pollinated vs. hybrid is that you can save your
own seed for replanting each year, knowing you'll get reasonably uniform
Some gardeners believe that open-pollinated varieties produce better tasting
crops. Tomatoes are a good example, with people swearing by old favorites like
'Brandywine'. However, Brandywine is susceptible to a number of common tomato
diseases, including fusarium and verticillium wilts. If these diseases occur in
your region, you may want to plant some disease-resistant hybrids as insurance.
The term "heirloom" refers to old-time favorites -- usually varieties that have
been around for at least 50 years. Most heirlooms are open-pollinated, but not
all. 'Burpee's Big Boy' hybrid was introduced in 1949, surely giving it the
right to be called an heirloom.
So, what's best for your home garden? If you need to maximize production in a
small space, or if you want all your crops to mature at the same time for easy
canning and freezing, or if you've had repeated trouble with plant diseases,
consider growing hybrids that boast the qualities you're looking for. If you're
looking for great taste, look for varieties bred or chosen for home gardens
(hybrid or open-pollinated), rather those bred for commercial production, which
often focuses on traits such as a long shelf life, sometimes at the expense of
taste. And if you want to save seed from year to year, grow open-pollinated.
Other than that, it's a matter of personal preference.