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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.

An 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.

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