What are Hybrid plants, Are they better than Heirloom plants? How are Hybrid plants produced?

There is a lot of confusion about what hybrid plants are. They are often confused with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). Why are hybrid produced and are they better than regular and Heirloom plants.

First, lets get the terms straight

Heirloom plants, also Heritage Plant,
There is heated arguments about exactly what defines an Heirloom plant. Usually heirloom plants have been used unchanged for generations. 50 years is often quoted. Heirloom plants are openly pollinated that is, naturally pollinated, by insects or whatever the usual way is for that plant. Heirloom plants tend to produce seeds that produce plants very similar to their parents. Heirloom plants tend to come from areas where people keep their own seeds rather than buying commercial seeds and have used the same type of plants for years.
Hybrid plants
Hybridization can occur naturally or deliberately. When two different varieties of a plant are cross pollinated, that is the pollen from one variety is used to fertilize a similar plant of another variety, the result is a hybrid. Gardeners have been doing this for a very long time in order to improve the yield, disease resistance, looks or just for fun. Hybridization also occurs naturally.
GMO plants
A genetically modified plant has had it's genetic material altered using genetic engineering techniques, in a way that does not occur naturally.
Are plant varieties that have been produced by selective breeding. A Cultivar is usually man made while a Variety occurs naturally.

What is a hybrid and how is it different from other plants?

Let say you have a plant that produces lovely fruit but is very sensitive to powdery mildew. You also have another variety that is not affected by powdery mildew but who produces lousy fruit. You might try breeding the 2 and growing the seeds that result, if the offspring is more resistant than the tasty fruit, and still produces good fruit then you have been successful.

This first crossing is referred to as an F1 hybrid.

Hybrids can occur in plants but also in animals. Mules are a hybrid between a donkey and a mare.

If you remember your High School Science you might remember Mendel. This 1800's Augustinian friar who spent years cross breeding pea plants and carefully recording what the hybrids produced. He wasn't the first to talk about hybridization but his carefully controlled experiments and theories were the basis for modern genetic studies. His writings 'Experiments in Plant Hybridization' are still available on Amazon, where else.

Encyclopaedia Britannica article on hybrids.

Squash are enthusiastic cross-breeders and will hybridize happily with wild varieties. That's why when you grow squash and keep the seeds year after year, you get many unexpected results. Sometimes the squash is sweet, tender and delicious and other times much less tasty and usable.

In hybridization the pollination is carefully controlled. There are many goals but usually horticulturists are looking for fruit that are bigger, more productive plants with better disease resistance, fruit that lasts longer and are more uniform, easier to pick, tastier, more nutritious, nicer looking.

Petunia hybrid

Many flower seeds are hybrid. Petunias and Lilies are very commonly found as hybrid and if they produce seeds, these seeds don't come up or end up looking very disappointing.

Hybrid plants do not breed true and the seeds of hybrid plant, if they produce any, will not be like their parents. Rather one or other of the grandparent features will start showing up, or traits that have nothing to do with the parents will appear.

It takes many generation of choosing the best plants and breeding them together before a satisfactory trait can be fixed and the improved plant breeds true. Sometimes this is not worth the effort or can't be done and F1 hybrids are produced freshly every year.

Although producing hybrids is more expensive that regular open pollinated plants they are often more vigorous, you've heard of "hybrid vigour", produce more, with less trouble. The fruit will also be more uniform and in a more predictable time frame.

Many of the traits that are bred for are useful for commercial growers. Improving the appearance, uniformity, timing of the fruit makes a fruit easier to sell, package, and harvest. This is not so important to the home grower who can live with a bumpier uglier tomato that comes in all sizes and does not always look picture perfect. Straggly harvest times is not a problem for the home grower either. Taste and disease resistance are traits that the home owner appreciates however.

If you look at the descriptions in seed catalogs you will often see disease resistance listed as a feature in the F1 hybrid seeds.

Sometimes growers will cross 2 different types of plants and come up with a completely new plant. Many fruits have been created this way.

An article on new types of fruit produces as hybrids

How are hybrids produced.

Breeders choose their parent stock carefully and manually take the pollen from one plant and fertilizes the other by hand. The stamen of the plant that is going to be manually fertilized are taken off and the pollen of the male plant is used instead. This is where you see horticulturists going around with little paintbrushes used to apply the pollen to fertilize their plants.

The plant must then be isolated so that it does not pick up wild pollen. Sometimes a paper bag is applied over the flower to keep other pollen out.

It takes a lot of experimenting before finding a cross that works and this research is expensive.

The breeder who creates a good hybrid owns the rights to it. The parentage of the new plant are carefully kept secret. The breeder can then get his research money back and make a profit by selling seeds.

In commercial growing, corn is an often hybridized plant. Seed growers select 2 different parent plants with desired characteristics. These must be very pure genetically so that the hybrid result will be consistent. These 2 types are bred together and the resulting F1 seed is sold.

Since manual fertilization is very time consuming, varieties of plants have been developed where the male is sterile. These are used rather than have someone going around snipping the pollen producing parts.

When you buy garden seeds you will often find that the higher priced seeds are hybrids. You might only get a few seeds for the same price as a whole envelope full of open pollinated plants.

What are the advantages or disadvantages of Hybrids

Advantages are many, increased vigour, nicer looking fruit that are more consistent, ripen evenly, produce more, keep better and are more disease resistant.

Several new types of fruit and plants have been developed here is a link to 11 Odd Hybrid fruit and vegetables.

Disadvantages are more subtle. Often flavour is reduced as might be nutritional value.

I say maybe because improved nutritional value is sometimes bred for. Generally the nutritional value of heirloom varieties is higher than more modern counterparts, hybrid and open pollinated.

Genetic variety is reduced. Because the hybrid, and commercial open pollinated plants that might have started out as hybrids and later became established varieties, are much more uniform genetically. Loss of genetic variety results in a less adaptable plant if anything bad happens such as a new disease of climate change that makes the common varieties less suitable.

Because hybrid seed do not breed true, growers need to buy new seed every season. If they plant their own seeds from hybrid seeds, the seeds will not necessarily look anything like the parents and will not have the advantages of the hybrid parent seed. This has economic consequences for the farmer who can no longer produce his own seed. It is usually more economical for the farmer to use hybrid seeds because of improved qualities and yields. The cost is dependence on the seed producers.

There are a number of companies that sell heirloom seed collection to survivalist customers.
Survival Essentials 135 Variety Premium Heirloom Non Hybrid Non GMO Seed Bank - 23,335+ Seeds - All In One Super Value Pak…Veggies, Fruits, Medicinal/Culinary Herbs - Plus 9 FREE Rare Tomato Varieties.

So should I plant vigorous hybrid plants or take a chance in traditional Heirloom seeds?

As usual the answer is "it depends". If the choice is plant a heirloom and see the crop destroyed by disease, OR plant a hybrid and get an abundant albeit less tasty crop then go for the hybrid.

Hybrid plants are often the only choice for conditions which are quite harsh, such as very short seasons.

My usual strategy is to plant both. Some heirloom and several open pollinated plants and some hybrids to ensure an abundant crop.

Because conditions can vary hugely here then having a variety of varieties ensures a greater chance of success.

That way if your heirloom plant is too much of a fussy Prima Donna you still get something to eat.

leek plants

My experiment with an F1 Hydrid leek and a Heirloom leek. I planted both on the same day in the same soil and kept them both is the same conditions. I also put some between damp paper towels to check germination.

The heirloom germinated better than the hybrid between paper towels but the hybrid beat the heirloom by almost 5 days in coming up and unfolding their little shoots. The hybrid on the left is taller, greener and bigger around than the heirloom on the right. There are also more of them come up. To be continued... Time will tell if the heirloom taste better.

The Heirloom cost 1.89 for 390 seeds while the hybrid cost 3.99 for 25 seeds, (actually there were 29). That's quite a difference in cost.

I've tried many of the heirloom tomatoes and gotten mixed results. In one case, after a lot of trouble and care I ended up with a couple of not very impressive small bumpy purple tomatoes. Nice tasting, no argument, but a lot of work and expense for 2 tomatoes. That highlights some of the issues of heirloom plants. They are wonderfully adapted to some specific conditions but not as forgiving when you can't provide these specific conditions. Let experience be your guide, ask fellow gardeners and eventually you will end up with varieties that you like and do well in your area.

Because the term HEIRLOOM is not regulated or defined, some seed companies will label any open pollinated plant "heirloom".

Hybrids can be grown organically as well as in the usual commercial method.

Small Print

This article is for information only, I don't claim to be an expert on anything.

email: Christine