Heirloom vs Open Pollinated; Hybrid vs GMO

Yes, planting season is drawing near, although you couldn’t tell by the 15″ of snow we’re expecting today.  I’ve recently been answering a lot of questions from people about the differences between heirloom seeds and open pollinated ones, hybrid plants and GMO crops.  The confusion is understandable considering the amount of attention these subjects have been getting in recent years.  Here’s a brief primer on the differences of each so you know what you’re shopping for when it’s time to by seeds for your garden!

Heirloom

An heirloom, by definition, is a valuable object that has been in a family for several generations.  You can think of heirloom seeds the same way.  Heirloom fruits and vegetables are varieties that have been around for a very long time and the seeds were originally passed down through families or communities for several generations.  They are true to their original form and you can save the seeds from the fruit and produce the same plant again the next year, no problem – which means they are open pollinated (more on that in a minute).

Seed savers and growers use different methods to classify a variety as an heirloom: 100 yrs old, 50 years old, pre-1945 (end of WWII) and pre-1951 (when the first commercial hybrids were introduced and commercial seed selling began booming).  So, classifying a seed as an heirloom can be a little subjective when it comes to how long the variety has been around; however, the absolute requirement is it must be able to produce true to type when planted from saved seed the next year.  And it must be old – how old is the subjective part.

Often, heirloom seeds are in danger of being lost if they’ve fallen out of popularity.  Seed Savers Exchange is just one organization that is dedicated to making sure many of these old varieties don’t dissappear.

Open Pollinated

All heirlooms are open pollinated, but not all open-pollinated varieties are heirlooms.  There have been varieties that came out after 1951 that do produce “true to type.”  In other words, growing a tomato, drying it, saving the seed and planting that seed the next year will produce the same tomato.  The next generation will look just like the parent.

Of course, “open pollinated” is a little bit of a misnomer.  There’s nothing at all “open” about pollinating heirlooms.  They need to be pollinated by another of the same type, or you’ll end up with a hybrid (see where I’m going here?).  The result of the two types cross pollinating may be wonderful or a complete disaster.  In fact, this is how many heirlooms began.  Someone took a few different varieties in their own garden, crossed them, saved the seeds, planted them again and really liked the result and just continued saving and replanting.  Some heirlooms were just a unique mutation in one particular veggie of a variety that someone really liked, saved, replanted and continued to cultivate.

Hybrids

There are really two types of hybrids.  The first are cross-pollinated varieties of older cultivars.  The offspring of these hybrids cannot be reproduced true to type from the seed they produce.  They may produce a plant but the resulting vegetable will not be the same as the parent.  Many of these have been around for decades or longer and were originally crossed to take the best characteristics from two or more varieties, such as flavor, shape or color, and combine them into one plant.

The second type of hybrid are called F1 hybrids.  These are usually varieties developed to be commercially sold because of unique characteristics of disease resistance, fruit size, ability to hold up well during shipping, etc.  If you attempt to save and replant the seeds of these cultivars, they may not even sprout because of sterility.  If they do sprout, they may not produce anything.

In any case, all hybrids are cross-pollinations of two or more varieties but are not genetically modified.  That’s a whole different animal, er, vegetable.

GMOs

A GMO is a genetically modified organism.  Also known as GE seeds, or genetically engineered, these seeds are created in a lab.  The genetic structure has been altered at the molecular level by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes.  The range of GMO seeds is enormous; some have been modified to accept a higher level of pesticides or herbicides without being affected, others have the DNA of other plants, animals or even human organs (yes, I said human organs) spliced in with them to increase their production level or level of vitamins.  The most common types of GMO seeds are used in commercial commodity crops: corn, soybeans and sugar beets.  However, there are now varieties of GMO sweet corn and zucchini on the market as well as pretty much all the papaya coming from Hawaii.

Time to Plant

So, how do you know what you’re planting in your garden?  The good news is unless you are buying your seeds from a commercial growers catalog, you won’t be planting any GE seeds.  These would contain some very specific language in them including descriptions of the genetics used to create them.

As far as heirloom vs open-pollinated vs hybrid, most seed packets will tell you which one is which.  The decision is up to you on what the most important thing about gardening is for you and your family.  If your goal is to have the tastiest produce possible, you may want to stick to heirloom varities.  Though they are very unpredictable and germination can be erratic, the flavor of heirloom varieties is very hard to beat.  If you’re more concerned about the amount you can grow, check out some of the older hybrids.  They can retain a lot of the flavor of the heirlooms but combine that with a more steady and predictable growth pattern.  And, again, unless you’re shopping from a commercial catalog you probably won’t find any F1 hybrids, either.

Your best bet is try a few different varieties each season, pick your favorites and go from there.  Happy planting!