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Heirlooms vs. Hybrids: A Common-Sense Approach
Provided by Renee Shepherd, Brooklyn Botanic Garden
When it comes to the world of garden seeds, warring factions can make the Republicans and Democrats seem nonpartisan.
Champions of heirlooms insist that they are the saviors of world food crop diversity, foot soldiers in the battle against an increasingly powerful cartel of seed companies. Hybrid proponents dismiss the heirloom advocates as agriculture's version of tree huggers, inflexible ideologues standing in the way of progress by rejecting the superior disease resistance and commercial viability of hybrids.
The battle lines are obviously drawn, making questions about the relative merits of open-pollinated, heirloom, and hybrid seeds a hot topic of discussion in the gardening press these days. Confronted with conflicting opinions and so many choices about seeds to plant, what's a gardener to do?
What Does It All Mean?
As is often the case with controversial subjects, a few basic definitions are in order to begin any discussion. The term "F1 hybrid" means the first filial generation made by crossing two different parent varieties, the offspring of which produce a new, uniform seed variety with specific characteristics from both parents. For example, breeders may choose to cross two tomato varieties to make an F1 hybrid that exhibits the early maturity of one parent and a specific disease resistance of the other. The unique characteristics of an F1 hybrid are very uniform only in the first generation of seed, so seed saved from F1 plants will not come true if replanted and may exhibit many distinct types in the second generation, often reverting to various ancestral forms. To produce consistent F1 hybrids, the original cross must be repeated each season. As in the original cross, this is done through controlled hand-pollination, and seed production is often offshore, where labor is cheaper. Many common home garden tomatoes, such as 'Early Girl', 'Celebrity', or 'Carmello', are F1 hybrids, and most commercial fruiting vegetables seen in supermarkets, like eggplants, tomatoes, melons, and bell peppers, are grown from F1 hybrid varieties.
Open-pollinated seeds are a result of either natural or human selection for specific traits which are then re-selected in every crop. The seed is kept true to type through selection and isolation; the flowers of open-pollinated or O. P. seed varieties are pollinated by bees or wind. Their traits are relatively fixed within a range of variability. For example, if I grew the 'Brandywine' variety of open-pollinated tomato in dry northern California summers year after year and saved seeds only from the best-tasting, earliest- ripening fruits in my climate zone, I would have a locally adapted strain of 'Brandywine', different from the 'Brandywine' grown by a gardener in humid, rainy Alabama who has been saving seeds from fruits that produce very well in his or her climate, rather than my California conditions.
All heirloom varieties are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated varieties can be considered heirlooms. Unfortunately, the definition of "heirloom" has been somewhat of a moving target recently, but generally it means a variety that is at least 40 to 50 years old, that is no longer available in the commercial seed trade, and that has been preserved and kept true in a particular region. So, for example, if a variety of open-pollinated pepper has been grown in Vermont or Maine for five or six generations and seed has been selected and saved by local growers and gardeners, it would be considered an heirloom variety. Obviously, heirloom varieties have been saved because they have some real virtues. The classic examples are heirloom tomatoes, which often have superior flavor, color, or texture, but lack the holding ability, disease resistance, early maturity, or other characteristics that would make them commercially viable.
Keepers of the Flame
Seed-saving organizations, specialty seed companies, and home gardeners have been the agents that have kept heirloom varieties in existence over time, as larger seed companies generally focus on varieties (both O. P. and F<1) with commercial qualities. Fortunately, in the last few years the popularity of heirlooms like 'Mortgage Lifter', 'Brandywine', and 'Marvel Stripe' tomatoes has been growing rapidly, and some seed-producing companies have started to make them available to home garden seed sellers once again.
I think that both hybrid and open-pollinated/heirloom varieties deserve a legitimate place in any home garden. Hybrids can offer uniform fruit, often with superior disease resistances, reliable productivity, and a particular maturity range. So, if I garden in an area that has a very short season and a serious soil nematodes problem, I can choose a tomato hybrid developed to produce ripe fruit early and whose plants resist nematodes. If I garden in containers, I look for F1 hybrids bred to grow into a short spreading bush with concentrated harvests.
With tomatoes, it is often said that F1 hybrids lack flavor, but that depends on which ones are planted. It's true that many commercial American tomato varieties are rather bland. But some home garden varieties do taste great, and some hybrids from Europe, where flavor has been more commonly a commercial breeding goal, are quite delicious! Brassica family F1 hybrids (broccoli, cabbage, and related vegetables) are a first choice in my garden because they are much more resistant to pests, disease, and weather fluctuations and have been bred to be space-saving and compact.
Open-pollinated vegetables also have a lot to offer. If you enjoy saving seed, you can choose those open-pollinated varieties that produce great-tasting and easy-to-grow harvests and save seed from their best plants to use every season. It's fun to become a backyard breeder this way and develop your own selected cultivar. Heirloom, open-pollinated varieties usually have a beloved local history and may exhibit unusual colors, shapes, or flavors. They may ripen over a prolonged season or may have been selected to do well in a specific area. One of my favorites is 'Moon and Stars' watermelons. These plump, big beauties have pretty little yellow moon and star shapes decorating their dark green rinds. They need a long, hot season to mature, but if you can offer them what they need, they are a true pleasure to grow, and taste exquisite. I also love planting a rainbow of tomatoes, and by choosing heirlooms, I can go way beyond ordinary red tomatoes and grow big, juicy orbs that ripen up to yellow, orange, pink, bicolored, cream, or even purple-black. The heirlooms all have colorful histories, and while they may not produce as plentifully or as reliably as F1 red slicers, I wouldn't be without them.
In the home garden and farm stand arenas of the seed industry, consumers can really influence the market by demanding lots of seed choices from nurseries and catalogs. Chefs and restaurants in recent years have also encouraged the revitalization of open-pollinated heirlooms by featuring them in starring roles, as vegetables have moved to the center of the plate in food fashion over the last decade.
As in most areas of life, gardeners should celebrate diversity. Plant the best hybrids as well as exceptional heirlooms. Enjoy the process of seeing what successes each growing season produces, and keep experimenting. In the end, gardening is an art in evolution in everyone's backyard, and a full palette of variety options are its tools.
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