In the conversation about the dangers of genetically modified seeds and the benefits of heirloom seeds happening across the internet it seems like hybrids are be getting a bad reputation. The word "hybrid" sounds scary and conjures up images from the nightmares you have after viewing a science fiction movie. The truth is that hybrid plants have been around a long time. Simply put, hybridizing is the creation of new plants from plants that already exist. Sometimes even the supporters of GMOs fail to understand that hybrids are not synonymous with GMOs.
For an example see the comment by "Zigster."
Hybrids are indeed commercially available, and that's OK. There is nothing wrong with hybrid seeds, plants, vegetables or flowers. Hybridization occurs all the time in nature without help from humans in lab coats.
Look at the image at the top of this post. On the left is a "black" columbine that I grow in my garden, I grew it from seeds given to me by a gardener. After the blooms have been pollinated and the seed pods mature I scatter seeds around the garden and let the seedlings grow to create more of these "black" blooming columbines. In the spring of 2009 the bloom on the right emerged in the garden. I only grow the "black" columbine and all of the columbines growing in my garden have come from seeds I saved and sowed. So, where did this purple and white bloom come from?
Chances are that the original seeds for my "black" columbine were hybrid seeds and this one plant reverted and now displays characteristics of its grandparents. But this does not account for the fact that I have a couple of generations of these plants grown from seeds I collected and sowed, which all look alike.
The other option, which at the moment makes the most sense to me, is that this bloom is itself a hybrid. Peering into the gardens around my own I discovered that several of my neighbors have planted columbines of various colors. When I planted my columbines they were the only ones around for blocks. Today, the bees have access to pollen from of a variety of columbines and a bee must have pollinated a columbine in my garden with the pollen of a neighbor's columbine.
If I saved the seeds from the purple and white columbine and sowed them in the garden the blooms that result would not look exactly like the one pictured above. If I wanted seeds that were true to type (that looked exactly like the purple and white columbine), I would have to pollinate my "black" columbine with the same columbine the bees pollinated mine with.
This would have to be repeated over and over every time I wanted to produce more plants that bloomed the same as the purple and white bloom. In seed catalogs, these seeds are described as F-1 hybrids. F-1 stands for first filial generation, these exhibit characteristics of both parents, in this case the purple from my columbine and white from another. Saving and sowing seeds from F-1 hybrids will result in lots of variation and blooms that don't look identical to the one you collected seeds from.
What are Open-Pollinated Seeds?
Recently a blogger, who blogs for a garden publisher, wrote that open-pollinated seeds give people control over their food. Sadly, the statement is indicative of the politicizing of seeds, gardening and agriculture that is leading to lot of confusion. If you are looking to make a political statement with your seed purchases-- open-pollinated seeds will not help you stick it to the man, because it is just a descriptive label.
Open-pollination is just the means by which the plants will reproduce. Some plants will cross-pollination aided by wind, water, insects or animals (including humans). Self-pollination is possible by plants that have both male and female parts on either the same flower or another flower growing on the same plant.
Corn needs cross-pollination, tomatoes can self-pollinate. When seeds are labeled as being open-pollinated that just means that the pollination occurred either by cross-pollination or self-pollination (without aid or intervention) and should results in plants that are true to type. Unlike the controlled methods (usually involving hand-pollination) that is common with hybridizing. The black columbines in my garden are open-pollinated, I do nothing to ensure they are or aren't pollinated by outside pollen sources. The opposite of open-pollination is not hybrid.
As a seed saver /trader if someone tells me that they have open-pollinated seeds I take that as a warning that the transfer of pollen has been left up to nature and when nature is doing the work chances are that you may end up with some variance, like the purple and white columbine above. Seed producers will usually isolate plants (grow them a distance apart), or grow only one variety, to keep this from happening, but there is always a slim chance that your open-pollinated seeds will exhibit some variance.
What are Heirloom Seeds?
Generally speaking, heirlooms are plants that have been grown by farmers and gardeners and the seeds saved every year and replanted. Like antiques, these fruit and vegetable seeds are handed down from generation to generation. Heirloom lovers say that heirlooms are better than hybrids because they have better taste, can be grown from saved seed and keep the genetic diversity of what we eat alive. If one type of seeds could be said to help you have control over your food, heirlooms seeds would be them. One thing to keep in mind is that if you grow more than one variety of something in the garden there is a chance that your plants can cross, creating hybrids, defeating the purpose of you growing heirlooms.
Personally, I am of the opinion that whatever gives the gardener the greatest sense of satisfaction is, ultimately, what matters. Neither hybrids, nor heirlooms are better if the gardener growing these seeds fails in germinating the seed or does not get a chance to harvest a crop. Lately heirlooms have been riding a wave of popularity as people seek to shop according to their conscious, buy seeds they can save and sow later or reconnect to a simpler time. Growing heirloom fruits and vegetables is a worthy endeavor, but...
If you come across lists, blogs, websites or garden personalities trumpeting heirlooms while warning you not to buy hybrids take the information with a grain of salt. Heirlooms are no more pure than hybrids. At one point heirlooms had to have been hybrids; little of what we now eat looks exactly like it did in nature when humans realized it could be eaten. You cannot go to South America, where tomatoes are native, and pick 'Mortgage Lifter' tomatoes in the wild.
Some sources and seed sellers are blurring the lines of what is an heirloom. A variety 40-50 years-old is considered an heirloom.
While researching this blog post I have came across several online seed sellers listing 'Rutgers' tomato seeds as "heirlooms," "non-hybrids" and "open-pollinated." Here is a perfect example of why demonizing hybrids is silly. The 'Rutgers'
tomato was a hybrid developed by breeder Lyman Schermerhorn at the height of the tomato canning industry in New Jersey. Once only grown commercially it is now available through seed catalogs and is a popular tomato among home gardeners, and there are several strains of it available as open-pollinated seeds and is now considered an "heirloom." Tastes and attitudes shift and while 'Rutgers' may once have been a big bad hybrid of the commercial world; there is now a generation of gardeners who are seeking it out because the taste reconnects them to childhood memories of sitting down to a bowl of Campbell's tomato soup.
Recently, a garden blogger contacted a popular heirloom seed company after reading The Boycotting of Monsanto-Seminis Seeds
post to ask about the source of their seeds. Here is the reply the blogger received:
Thanks for your inquiry! I appreciate your concerns.
ALL our seeds are open-pollinated, non-hybrid, non-GMO types. We sell NO treated seed; however some of our seed is conventionally grown so therefore some of our seed is not organic. To the best of our knowledge we are not offering any PVP (protected) varieties; all our varieties are public-domain, and therefore seed-saving is legal. (It is also strongly encouraged!) We don't do any business directly with Monsanto-Seminis, and we don't knowingly do business with their subsidiaries or with anyone who even offers their seed for sale. Some of our seed is imported by us; it says so right in the catalog. Some of our seed is purchased from wholesale distributors, and the truth is we do not know in most cases where their seed is produced.
If hybrids, given time, can become open-pollinated heirlooms and your favorite heirloom seed company is purchasing seeds from wholesale distributors without knowing where the seed is produced-- is the garden the best place to make a political statement? Probably not. Gardening is a seedy business.
Hybrid seeds are not the enemy, not even close.