New gardeners are sometimes confused by the terms hybrid, non- hybrid or heirloom when shopping for vegetable or flower seeds.
Here’s a quick primer.
Hybrids are the result of breeding two distinct varieties of plant or animal. The offspring of such a mating produces a new variety of the same species that incorporates certain desirable characteristics of both parents.
There are many good reasons for using and breeding hybrid plants or animals.
Hybrids whether they be plant or animal, are usually more vigorous and healthier than their parents.
Fruits and vegetables from hybrids will often out produce their parents, with more size and shape uniformity.
Many hybrids show more resistance to pests and disease and often will ripen sooner or set fruit earlier.
This increase in hardiness and productivity is known as “hybrid vigor”.
The first generation of a hybrid cross is referred to as the first filial generation or F1 for short. Hybrids don’t necessary have only 2 parents. Many hybrid animals and seeds are the resulting cross mating of 3 or 4 different individuals.
Seeds or offspring from hybrid vegetables or animals will not produce the same type of plants or offspring as the parent.
Hybrids seed saved from hybrid parents at best will come true to the parent less than 30% of the time.
Some saved seed from hybrid plants can even be sterile.
The non-performance of saved hybrid seed or F2 generation seed, is an important economic and environmental adaptation consideration for those who wish to save seed over from year to year.
F2 seed normally will have lost the hybrid vigor from the true hybrid parents. If planted the following year the seed will begin to revert back and exhibit undesirable characteristics that may be part of the genetic makeup of one or both of the parents.
Hybrid seeds must be purchased every year and they are not cheap. Because hybrid plants by their nature cannot produce a dependable and predictable seed, they cannot over many generations adapt to specific environmental needs or situations.
GENETICALLY MODIFIED SEED
Another way that seed can be made hybrid is by genetic modification. Such seed is often referred to a GM seed.
GM seed is created in a laboratory by introducing the DNA from one species or organism to another.
The Frankenstein fish strawberry is a well-known example. The fish -strawberry is a transfer of genes between an Arctic fish and a strawberry.
You see, the mad scientist thinking was strawberries are very cold sensitive and the Arctic fish is not – so let’s make a DNA cocktail and see what we get.
By combining DNA of the two different species a more frost resistant strawberry was created.
GM seed has attached proprietary rights, is known to contaminate open pollinated crops and in some cases has what is known as a “terminator gene”. This is a gene sequence to purposefully make the resulting F1 seed sterile. The “terminator gene” (developed by Delta and Pine, now owned by Monsanto) was never approved for sale in any crop, so there are no seeds available that contain this gene.
The Center for Environmental Risk Assessment maintains a database of GM plants that have regulatory approval for sale in the US (though not all are commercially available).
If you want to avoid GM seeds, these are currently the only plants that have been genetically engineered and allowed to be sold: Bentgrass, Sugar Beet, Canola, Papaya, Chicory, Melon, Squash, Carnation, Soybean, Cotton, Flax/Linseed, Tomato, Alfalfa, Tobacco, Rice (not currently sold), Plum, Potato (not currently sold – but getting close), Wheat (not currently sold but getting close ), and Maize (field corn varieties – no sweet corn yet).
In Europe, GM potatoes are now available. In China, GM rice has been approved. And in India, GM eggplant was developed but is not yet available.
The use of GM seed and the cross contamination of crops by GMO ‘s has become a worldwide hot button agricultural, economic, health and environmental issue. The use of GM seed is one of the reasons for mass suicide among small farmers in India.
NON HYBRID – OPEN POLLINATED
Non- Hybrid seed is often known as “open pollinated” or OP.
Open pollinated plants are crossbred varieties that have often been passed down by gardener to gardener for many generations.
The seeds from these crossbred plants are very stable. They produce plants that grow true to the parent with few sports or mutations.
Plants from open pollinated seed over many generations have the ability to adapt to a specific local environment or growing conditions.
Non- hybrid seed can be collected every year from open pollinated plants and stored for the next growing season.
When collecting seed for future use it’s important that only seed from the most superior plants be saved for future use.
Unlike hybrid seed, seed saving from open pollinated plants is free and incurs no yearly cost.
This is an important economic consideration for gardeners and to small traditional farmers.
Keep in mind that if you are growing non-hybrid, open pollinated plants for their seed, they must be kept well away from other plants of different varieties so they don’t cross-pollinate.
It’s the wind rather than insects that most often carries pollen.
Distance is the most effective tool and insurance against cross-pollination.
A distance of 250’ to 300’ between different types or varieties of plants will insure seed that comes true to the parent.
A distance of about 600’ – 700’ will give a complete isolation and is only used for scientific or plant breeding purposes.
HEIRLOOM OR HERITAGE
Heirloom or Heritage Seed is a type of non-hybrid seed.
There is no general agreement on the use of the terms – heirloom or heritage – when describing seeds or plants.
Heirloom seeds are always open pollinated and non-hybrid.
The term is generally used to describe seed or plant varieties that were grown prior to WWII – before what many consider the beginning of big industrial agriculture or “The Green Revolution”.
Some growers feel that the term heirloom should only be applied to seeds or plants that have been passed down in one family to the following generation of family gardeners.
Many people believe that heirloom seeds always produce a tastier, superior and more nutritious fruit or vegetable.
This is simply not true and has not been my experience.
Modern hybrid sweet corn is my favorite example.
It’s my opinion that any variety of modern sweet corn is far, far superior to the common heirloom sweet corn varieties – such as Golden Bantam or Sunshine.
I plant a couple of different types of sweet corn in my vegetable garden. Bodacious and Silver Queen are two of my favorites.
What I do love and appreciate are the many different varieties of heirloom tomatoes.
Amish Paste, Ox Heart, Abe Lincoln, Brandywine, and Old German Striped are some of my favorite heirloom tomatoes.
There is no question that open pollinated heritage and heirloom seeds help to insure worldwide plant diversity.
In fact plant diversity and food crop genetics are the cornerstone of worldwide food security. As of late this issue has become more important than ever.
Which brings me to –
Do you know about the Svalbard Seed Bank?
The reality of limited plant genetics is one of the reasons for the Svalbard Global Seed Bank and has become fodder for modern-day apocalyptic global famine scenarios and conspiracy theorists. The Svalbard Seed Bank is also known as the Dooms Day Vault.
The vault is located 810 miles from the North Pole on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen and houses seeds from every continent.
The concept of the seed bank was to provide insurance against the loss of plant genetics in the case of catastrophic regional or global crises.
The Svalbard Seed Bank cost over $9,000,000 U.S. dollars to build and was funded entirely by Norway. The government of Norway and the Global Crop Diversity Trust provides for the day-to-day operational costs. The Global Crop Diversity Trust is an independent international organization.
The seed vault has sci-fi state of the art security systems but no permanent staff.