Saving Seeds: Open Pollinated vs. Hybrid

Share the Seed (12)By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

Ever wonder what the difference is between open pollinated, hybrid, heirloom, and GMO seeds, and which one is right for you? Well, in today’s post I hope to shed a little light on the situation, but first, you might want to send the kids out of the room for this studious look at how seeds are born and why you should care what happens in your garden when you’re not looking.

Just so we’re clear on our terminology, let me go over a couple of technical things about seeds and how they are, er, “made”.

First of all, open-pollinated seeds are the result of the natural pollination process.  You know – birds and bees kind of stuff. But more precisely, open-pollinated seeds are the result of “natural relations” – if you get my drift – between genetically similar parents.

You’re probably asking “What the heck does that mean?”  Let’s use this scenario to explain:

 A pure-bred Waltham Butternut squash plant in your garden has “relations” with another pure-bred Waltham Butternut squash. This pairing will produce pure-bred Waltham Butternut squash babies – not Green Striped Cushaw babies, or Connecticut Field Pumpkin babies – only Waltham Butternut squash babies. These babies are open-pollinated, pure-bred Waltham Butternut squash, and if they stick with their own in the future, the lineage will carry on from generation to generation.

Slide21Now, if any of those Waltham Butternut squash get too close to other varieties of Cucurbita moschata, like Butterbush Butternuts, Green Striped Cushaws or Canada Crooknecks, they’re likely to get to winking at each other and before you know it, they’ve gone and cross-pollinated one another. The result of this kind of cross would result in the baby squashes having the genes of both parents – making it a hybrid.  If we were talking about dogs here, you might call the results a mutt.

No matter which analogy you prefer, just remember that most open-pollinated seeds are relatively simple to save from one year to the next and from generation to generation so long as you keep the same kinds together and different kinds apart.  You can do this by putting distance between varieties of the same species, or by staggering plantings so they flower at different times, as well as  other more tedious maneuvers such as caging, bagging, and hand-pollinating.  But the very best way to ensure isolation for the production of pure seed, is to only grow one of variety of any species in a given season.

Sometimes humans working in greenhouses or labs make different plants “relate” on purpose in order to create new varieties of both open-pollinated and hybrid varieties.

Hybrids – like armadillos – are a little strange and tricky, but not terribly dangerous.  As mentioned before, hybrids are seeds that are the direct result of “relations” between two or more genetically distinct (or different) parents that belong to the same species.  In other words, the parent plants of hybrids are usually the same species – a cucumber with a cucumber – but of a different variety – let’s say, a Straight Eight with a Homemade Pickle.

This latter “relationship” adds all kinds of new genes into the pool, which ultimately get all jumbled around and are stored in the seeds of the fruit of those plants.   That being said, it’s important to understand that most of the time, the fruit produced on each of the parent plants during the original co-mingling may look exactly like their pure-bred parents.  But that’s the trick.  Because inside the fruit are the seeds, which are the ultimate product of cross-pollination.

When seeds of plants that have cross-pollinated are planted, they are going to produce something quite unexpected and will most likely be very different from their parents when they grow up.  Indeed, the offspring produced from cross-pollination between two varieties of the same species might have the eyes of the mamma plant and the nose of the daddy plant, so to speak, but they probably won’t look much like their parents at all.

Slide22What you generally get when two varieties of the same species “relate” is a red-headed stepchild that no one knows what to do with. It’s really best to stop all that foolishness as soon as it pops up in the garden so that you don’t keep altering the variety any further.  And always, always, keep a stash of known true-to-type seed held back for just this kind of situation.

Let’s get one thing straight right now, hybrids are not to be confused in any way with GMO’s, which are not the result of natural relations of any kind.  I would go so far as to say that GMO’s aren’t “natural” in any sense of the word.  In fact, GMO’s come from seeds whose genes have been tweaked in a laboratory by white-gloved scientists.  Their genetics have been forcefully altered to include unrelated genes, including those from mice, fungi, viruses, other animals, bugs, and in some cases, humans.

I have often been heard to say, that “Rice and mice don’t splice!” – but if you are a geneticist, you can force them to.  And be aware that the number and frequency of genetically modified organisms in food crop seeds, including garden seeds, is on the rise.  This kind of creepy Frankenstein manipulation won’t end until we demand they be labeled as GMO’s.

Now I feel like I’ve got to defend true hybrids just a little.  Hybrids are good plants that have been bred in a fairly normal, natural way.  They just have a little identity crisis because they didn’t get to pick their partners.  And despite what people say, hybrids definitely have a place in the garden.  Due to their careful breeding, hybrids are often heavy producers and have improved pest and disease resistance.  And if you’re into creating new plant varieties, you basically have to create a hybrid before you can stabilize a new open-pollinated variety.

Share the Seed (9)And if you’re thinking you’ll save some seed from hybrid plants, or you are growing similar types of open-pollinated plants for seed production, you had better stop right now.  You see, you can’t save the seeds from hybrids the same way you do open-pollinated or heirloom seeds and you generally don’t want to, either.

Unless of course, you’re one of those kinds of people that just like to see what kind of weird stuff they can come up with.  Otherwise, I recommend that all seed savers stick with the open-pollinated varieties, including heirlooms, until they can learn how to keep their garden produce from “relating’’ to one another when no one’s looking. 😉

Ok, you can let the kids back in now.  Happy gardening!

© 2014 Jill Henderson


Learn more about saving garden seeds with
The Garden Seed Saving Guide

Whether you’re a weekend gardener, homesteader, or serious survivalist, saving seeds is a money saving skill that every green-thumb should to have. An excellent resource for beginners and experienced gardeners alike, The Garden Seed Saving Guide takes you step-by-step through every aspect of saving seeds. If you want to save money, become more self-sufficient and avoid genetically modified food crops, The Garden Seed Saving Guide is for you.  Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore


Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.


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12 responses to “Saving Seeds: Open Pollinated vs. Hybrid

  1. Pingback: Seed Saving Time: Peppers | Show Me Oz

  2. whats wrong with the plants. even if they are hybrids are they not still edible? will they not continue to grow? also is it possible of cross breed pollination like a tomato with an eggplant? i want to save and reuse my seeds. this has been great advice. I am just a little confused

    • Hi Ed, I understand the confusion. Hybrids are a cross between two or more varieties of the same species (the second part of the Latin name). And as I state in the article, there’s nothing wrong with growing hybrid plants at all. In fact, many hybrids are bred from plants that exhibit desirable characteristics, such as disease resistance and high production rates. So go ahead and grow them, just keep in mind that you can’t save their seed and expect those seeds to produce plants exactly like the originals – they just don’t come true to type.

      To your other question – “is it possible of cross breed pollination like a tomato with an eggplant?”

      No, it’s not. While tomatoes and eggplants belong to the same family (Solanaceae) they do not share the same genus or species. Tomatoes are Lycopersicon esculentum, while eggplants are Solanum melongena. If you would like to read more about saving seed, either type the word “seed” into the search box or check out the following articles:

      Avoid GMO’s: Save Your Own Seed https://showmeoz.wordpress.com/2012/10/22/avoid-gmos-save-your-own-seed/
      Seed Saving Time: Tomatoes https://showmeoz.wordpress.com/2011/08/30/seed-saving-time-tomatoes/
      Winter Seed Saving: Pumpkins and Squash https://showmeoz.wordpress.com/2011/12/20/winter-seed-saving-pumpkins-and-squash/

      Hope that helps! 🙂

  3. tomatoes are self pollinating and in my experience rarely if ever cross

    • Hi Windy – you’re absolutely right. Tomatoes are self-pollinating and, for the most part, rarely cross pollinate. This is because tomatoes have flowers with both male and female flower parts within each flower. About 99.5% of the time, pollination takes place before the flower ever opens. However, some heirloom, currant, and potato leaf tomatoes have a style that protrudes just beyond the anther cone to the outside of the flower, making those organs potentially available to pollination by insects before the flowers open.

      This is a very slight chance and usually only happens in areas of high pollinator activity. That .5% also includes the very unlikely chance that self-pollination is disrupted due to lack of wind (nightshades need to be agitated to release pollen) and the reproductive organs are exposed to pollinating insects before internal pollination takes place.

      To read more about saving seed from tomatoes, check out my article Seed Saving Time: Tomatoes – at https://showmeoz.wordpress.com/2011/08/30/seed-saving-time-tomatoes/

  4. Can GMO plants cross pollinate with non-GMO plants and pass their GMO traits along in natural hybrids? Is GMO pollen entering the environment and spreading its aminal traits around?

  5. I would like to grow several types of purebred tomatoes. How far apart do I need to keep the plants to prevent cross pollination.

    • Hi, Roger. There’s actually a couple of answers to that question, but I will start by saying that tomatoes have perfect self-pollinating flowers and usually pollinate themselves before opening, which greatly reduces the possibility of cross pollination. It also allows you to plant more than one variety of tomatoes relatively close together. The casual seed saver can often get away with as little as 10′ separation, especially if you grow another crop like beans, or have a physical barrier like a building or fence in between the different varieties.

      That being said, some of the older heirloom tomatoes have a style that protrudes beyond the fused anther cone (see picture) before the flower opens, leaving it more vulnerable (than tomatoes that don’t have this feature) to outside pollination. If you are growing very old potato leaf or currant type tomatoes, different varieties should be separated by 20′-100′ to ensure excellent isolation. Hope that helps! 🙂An unopened tomato flower whose stigma is protruding beyond the fused anther cone.

  6. Pingback: Seed Saving Time: Drying and Storing Your Home Grown Seeds | Show Me Oz

  7. Pingback: Controlling Squash Bugs Organically | Show Me Oz

  8. Pingback: Seed Saving Time: Watermelon | Show Me Oz

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