Heirloom or Hybrid: What’s in My Seed Packet?

pepper and seedsSelecting new seeds to buy each year is an exciting activity. Whether choosing vegetables or flowers, there is more to our selection process than falling for a pretty picture. Does it matter if the seed is an open-pollinated variety or a hybrid? Can you grow a hybrid variety from saved seed? To understand differences among types of seeds, you need to understand how the mother plant was pollinated. Here are a few things to think about when you purchase seeds.

Open-pollinated plants may be self-pollinated, like snap beans, or pollinated by natural means – insects, butterflies, hummingbirds, wind, etc. – and then produce seed that will grow into plants very similar to the mother plant. If you buy seeds for an open pollinated plant, then you will be able to save seeds from the plants you grow and you won’t need to buy new seeds each year to grow the same great plants.

seed packetAn heirloom plant is a type of open-pollinated plant whose seeds have been saved and passed along for generations. Most heirlooms have been grown for at least 50 years, which indicates something about how desirable the plant’s traits are to survive when so many new varieties are introduced each year. Three seed companies that feature a wide variety of heirloom seeds are Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Virginia, and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Missouri.

Hybrid plants have been bred from two different types of parent plants to create a new plant that exhibits favorable traits that come from each parent. Hybrid plants often grow more vigorously than either parent. They also have other valuable features that distinguish them from the non-hybrid varieties, such as disease or pest resistance, larger yields, tolerance of high humidity, or novel colors or flower forms. Disease resistance is a trait that is important to many home vegetable growers who face powdery mildew or other diseases in their gardens.

Hybrids do not “come true” from seed. If you plant seeds that you save from a hybrid plant, you may get a plant that has some traits from one parent and some from the other, but it is unlikely to have the set of traits that the hybrid exhibited. (Learn more about Fruits Not True to Type.) If you want to grow that particular plant again, you will need to purchase seeds for that hybrid again.

Do you want to save seed from the plants you grow this year? If so, you will want open-pollinated seeds. Are you most concerned about disease resistance or particular features like new flower colors? If so, you will want hybrid seeds. Either way, there are lots of seed options from which to choose and experiment. Happy growing!

By Janet Mackey, University of Maryland Master Gardener, Talbot County. Do you have a question for a Master Gardener? Visit Local Programs and click on the Ask a Master Gardener Plant Clinic icon for your county.

Mention of specific companies is not intended as an endorsement by the University of Maryland.

7 thoughts on “Heirloom or Hybrid: What’s in My Seed Packet?

  1. tonytomeo March 30, 2018 / 12:26 am

    Thank you for explaining this. I almost never write about these topics, and never all together as they should be. (It is hard with limited space in my gardening column.)

  2. Michael Lee February 13, 2019 / 10:36 am

    My wife and I have been wanting to get into gardening for some time. We are going to try to grow from flower seed packets bought online this year. From your article, it is interesting the hybrids do not come from seeds.

    • Maryland Grows February 13, 2019 / 10:51 am

      How great to hear that you are getting into gardening this year. We’re here to help. This article refers to seeds that you would save from your garden. If you have bought hybrid flower seeds, they will grow just fine this year, but if you save the seeds of these flowers, they may not exhibit the same traits when you plant them the next year.

  3. barbara silva February 17, 2019 / 11:30 am

    If I plant my Heirloom next to a hybrid will the seeds from my Heirloom become sterile?

    • Maryland Grows February 18, 2019 / 1:31 pm

      No, the heirloom won’t become sterile. You may get genetic crossing between the two plants but you can still save and use the heirloom seeds. If you want to maintain a variety’s unique traits, you can use a method of isolation to prevent cross-pollination. For information, refer to the Seed Savers Exchange website, seed saving isolation distances and methods. https://www.seedsavers.org/learn#seed-saving

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