What’s the difference between heirloom and hybrid seeds? Does hybrid mean GMO? Nope. Does heirloom mean it’s better? Not necessarily. It’s good to know the difference between heirloom, hybrid and open-pollinated because it helps you be a better seed and seedling shopper. When you’re informed, you can buy exactly the varieties that work for your level of gardening expertise and your preferences in vegetable varieties.
Here’s how to understand the difference between heirloom, hybrid and open-pollinated veggies and seeds.
Open pollinated seeds are seeds that produce the same plant year after year. They are pollinated by the usual suspects–bees and moths or even the wind for self-pollinating plants like corn and tomatoes. Open pollinated plants may change genetically slightly over time, perhaps being a little bigger in size or flavor, but essentially you’ll get the same variety season after season.
Heirloom seeds and vegetables are a subset of open-pollinated seeds and veggies. In other words, all heirloom are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated are heirloom.
The difference is that heirloom varieties are old and have been passed down for many generations. The exact time frame is up for debate, but general consensus is that heirlooms are at least 75 to 100 years old. And the reason they’ve stuck around for so long is that they’re awesome and loved by many generations of gardeners. Many come with origination stories.
One of the advantages of heirlooms is that, like open-pollinated seeds, you can save their seeds and count on getting that same variety season after season. Not so with hybrid seeds.
Hybrid seeds, commonly referred to as F1, are seeds resulting from crossing two genetically distinct but closely related varieties with specific characteristics.
Many seed producers will create F1 seeds to guarantee certain characteristics to gardeners. These include:
- disease resistance
- prolific production
- flavor profiles
- geographic adaptation
These are not GMO seeds, and in fact they can be organic. They may also be more expensive, because it takes a lot of work to select the parent plants and hand-pollinate.
The challenge is in seed-saving, because if you save seeds from an F1 plant, the result of that seed will likely resemble one of the F1 plant’s parents rather than the F1 child.
I’ve been thinking of a way to explain this interesting twist in genetics, and it finally hit me: horse breeding. I hope this helps you understand the concept vs. confusing you more.
F1 explained through horse breeding
Let’s say you want a palomino (gold coat, blond mane and tail) horse. To get a palomino, you breed a cremello (white) horse to a sorrel (red) horse. And voila! Palomino baby horse. That baby is your F1. You crossed two parents with specific characteristics (white coat color and red coat color) to create your F1 palomino gold coat color.
Now let’s say that baby grows up and you think, “I love this color so much I want another, so I’ll breed my palomino.” You breed your palomino (F1) to another palomino. Voila! Palomino, right? Actually, no. You could end up with a cremello (white) or sorrel (red) baby. That’s because the F1 could easily produce the characteristics of one of its parents.
So, if you want to save and plant the seed from your F1 tomato, that’s fine. Just don’t expect the offspring to be like the parent.
Which is best?
In my garden, there is no best type of seed when it comes to heirloom / open-pollinated versus hybrid. I like F1 seeds because they’re often disease resistant and easy to grow, and as someone who’s a beginner gardener of some vegetable types, I like the advantages of F1 seed. In other areas, I select heirloom or open-pollinated seeds because I want to be able to save seeds from these plants and use them next season with the guarantee that the next generation will be like previous generations. The choice is really up to you.
Let me know what types you like to plant, and in which situations!