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 your own seed 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 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 best traits of a plant, 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 tend to scare off backyard 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 manual cross pollination of plants. Hybrids are bred to increase specific characteristics of the plants they create. Hybrids are made to produce higher yields, 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.
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
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