Saturday, January 26, 2013

Do you Know the Difference Between Open-Pollinated, Heirloom, and Hybrid Seeds?

Open-pollinated seeds are from a specific population (like several plants of a single variety of squash) where all the plants look the same and are allowed to cross pollinate freely. Any plant that makes it to the reproductive stage is able to parent the next generation. Therefore when seed companies sell these, care is taken by the farmer or breeder to remove any off-type plants before reproduction occurs so the next generation maintains the same characteristics as the parents.

Heirloom seeds are like any other heirloom- something that has been cherished and handed down the generations. Some heirloom seeds have been around for a very long time, some only a few generations. Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated seeds are heirloom. In addition, some heirloom seeds have not been managed very well so there can be a lot more variation in the population than a modern open-pollinated seed. This will result in some individual plants looking different than others from the same lot.

Hybrid seeds are (usually) the result of crossing two in-bred parents. Being an in-bred means the plant contains very little variation genetically.

Each of these two parents are usually very different from each other. Breeders cross these two distinct in-breds to get the hybrid. If the hybrid seed you plant is allowed to flower and open-pollinate with another hybrid of the same variety, they will produce offspring with varying amounts of traits from each of the original parents. In other words, they won't be true-to-type.

This is why people say you can't save seed from a hybrid. Because the seeds will produce plants that won't look like the original ones you planted. But the trick is, if you plant enough seed some of them might. Any guesses why?

All of these different seeds are the result of normal sexual reproduction- not genetic modification, engineering, or any other technique involving the movement of DNA of one organism into another that couldn't normally do that in nature. Too many people fear hybrids unnecessarily, when the reality is that unintended hybrids happen all the time when we allow two plants of the same genus and species (like broccoli and kale) to flower and cross.

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