Q.: I see seeds and plants that say “heirloom” and some say “hybrid.” What is the difference, and why is that important?
A.: Heirloom plants are somewhat like family treasures that are passed down from one generation to the next. They are saved in their original form, and each generation of flower, tree, vegetable or any other species of heirloom plant from that seed is identical to the parent plant.
To grow new plants that are true to the original, they are referred to as open pollinated, or OP. Open pollinated just means that the seeds will grow seedlings exactly like the parent. The term “heirloom” has been applied to open pollinated seed stock that has been passed down over time without any cross pollination. Heirloom plants have a history, or provenance, and can generally be traced back for a hundred years or more.
With today’s interest in our own farm heritage here in West Georgia, heirloom vegetable plants have been a popular choice for many of our home gardeners, and the produce is made available by many small commercial growers who sell their flowers and vegetables at the local farmer’s markets.
Hybrid seeds and plants are a mix of two or more parents, created by cross-pollination either by nature or by plant growers and breeders. Birds, wind and insects can cross pollinate plants inadvertently in their travels around the neighborhood. The cross won’t affect this year’s vegetables, but the seeds from those vegetables will have features unlike their parent. Often, the accidental hybrids can be more valued than the original, and are sometimes propagated by commercial nurseries for the home market or the farmer’s fields.
Many hybrids, however, are created by trial and error in a nursery or breeder’s greenhouse with the goal of improving on the original “heirloom” characteristics. Tomatoes, for example, are hybridized for size, color, firmness or flavor. There are hundreds of varieties of tomato hybrids on the market, catering to the needs of commercial growers, who need a product that features firmness and transportability; or home gardeners, who look for the best flavor, or desire the meatiness of a good canning tomato. Some tomatoes have been hybridized, or bred, to resist certain common pathogens, such as verticillium wilt or any number of viruses, blights or leaf spots. With these varieties of hybrid tomatoes, the success of a home vegetable garden is achieved with less use of chemicals and less aggravation on the gardener’s part.
Heirloom plants have another name that you may recognize. You’ve heard about growing native plants here in the Southeast? Well, if you have an heirloom plant or seed that is growing in its natural original habitat, that’s called a native. As long as it is not hybridized, a native will grow true to its parent plant, that is, exactly like the parent. Quite a few of us, as Master Gardeners, try to include as many native plants in our yards as we can – natives are especially suited to the climate and soil conditions in their “home turf,” and thrive in their natural habitat.