Sandi PullmanHeirloom versus hybrid seeds

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between heirloom and hybrids seeds? Gardening terminology can be very confusing and sometimes all these term just make your head spin and you wonder what in the world is everyone talking about. It is another language and so I am going to explain something about this secret language of gardeners. It is all about how plants reproduce through pollination, fertilisation and the creation of seeds.

Delicious Heirloom VegetablesFirst, I’ll clear up the confusion between the terms ‘heirloom’ and ‘heritage’. Heritage is just another term for heirloom and means seeds that have been passed down from generation to generation or from family to family. The seeds are popular because they have one or more attributes that people like, such as great taste. Also the variety is often more than 100 years old and is no longer available from commercial seed suppliers. Heirloom seeds need to have provenance; that is, their history is documented by the Seed Savers network.

Green Zebra heirloom tomatoes

Green Zebra heirloom tomatoes

A very important fact about heirloom seeds is that they are ‘open pollinated’, opposed to ‘closed pollinated’. Open pollinated means that the pollen is transferred by wind, water, bees, insects, animals and birds, as you find when growing pumpkins or sweet corn. This method creates great genetic diversity. Closed pollinated plants are plants that are able to fertilise themselves (self pollination) before the petals of the flowers open, such as beans and lettuce. While the flower is closed the anther (where the pollen is) rubs against the stigma (female part) and transfers the pollen. So closed pollinated plants aren’t as genetically diverse as open pollinated.

Colibri-thalassinus-001-editAll heirloom varieties are open pollinated and very promiscuous. They will accept pollen from any plant of the same species and thus a new strain is developed. The way to prevent open pollinated plants becoming contaminated is to hand fertilise them yourself and then isolate the flower by putting a paper bag over it and securing it. If you pollinate using this method, then the offspring will be as same as the parent plant and this is known as ‘true to type’.

Marigold Durango Bee F1 hybrid

Marigold Durango Bee F1 hybrid

Hybrid seeds on the other hand are produced by the commercial seed companies. They are developed by plant breeders and are known as F1 hybrids. There are two plants called parents which have been selected because there is something the breeders like about each, such as strong disease resistance or an unusual flower colour. The breeders hand pollinate the flowers and wait to see what the offspring turns out like. They will have many good qualities like larger flowers and earlier ripening but they are what we call ‘not true to type’ which means if you plant seed you have collected from them, you are not guaranteed to get exactly the same plant as the one you bought. Very often they revert back to one of their parents. Hybrid snap dragons are notorious for this. For example you buy some red flowering snap dragons which you let set seed and then discover that in the next generation, the flowers are yellow. Which is often a nice surprise, except if you are working to a colour theme.

Saving seeds

Saving seeds

It is important that we preserve our heritage/heirloom seeds as they are the source of our modern seeds. If we lose our open pollinated seeds our food security will be at risk. So saving the original seeds is very important. But as a home gardener, I don’t have a preference either way. I like to try the older varieties, but I am also happy to buy seedlings that come from F1 hybrid seeds. It is personal preference and I will leave you to make your own mind up.

Note: An heirloom variety must be open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms.

ssn_logoThe Australian name for the seed saving organization is Seed Savers Network but it is known in other countries as the Seed Savers Exchange. You can learn more about the Seed Savers Exchange in the video.

Like this post? Why not share it with a friend?

Sandi Pullman

About Sandi Pullman

Sandi was a horticultural advisor to ABC TV’s Gardening Australia and has 21 years experience. She is a regular contributor to Vasili’s Good Gardening and Your Vegie Patch. She has also contributed to the Gardening section of The Age and to the Australian Garden History Society journal over the years. She is a founding member of the Friends of Burnley Gardens and now is volunteer garden co-ordinator for the Friends of La Trobe’s Cottage and is researching what plants were available from 1800 to 1854 to recreate an authentic garden of early Melbourne.

3 thoughts on “Heirloom versus hybrid seeds

  1. Good work Sandi – helpful distinctions too few people make. You didn’t mention FLAVOUR though – my main interest in heritage/heirloom veges/fruit – they taste better, or in some cases HAVE flavor -unlike ‘transport/store/cool-store’ well, but have no flavor-modern F1 hybrids a la big-corporate freight/retail companies. No wonder farmers markets, community gardens and grow-your-own/pass it down/keep those seeds is catching on. No comparison I say. Perhaps promiscuity is good for flavor (phD topic?) getting into murky water now!

  2. Thanks Stuart, In the second paragraph I did mention flavour as I said they are chosen because they have attributes people like such as great taste. The would be a fun phD – promiscuity.

  3. Hello Sandi

    I’m a great fan of heirloom vegetables and save my own seed aiming to continue selecting for vigour and flavour. Probably the former is the bigger issue in central and northern latitudes of Australia, as much of the seed available commercially has been selected to grow well in temperate climates (I understand most seed these days comes from the American mid-west) and can lack vigour in warmer climates. I often find that it is the second and third generation plants that really show vigour in my veggie garden. Hence my first priority is locally saved seeds.

    There are also some fabulous heirlooms grown around Australia. I have a soft spot for various rosellas (still looking for the yellow rosella grown in the 1980s), blue pumpkins, snake (long) beans, labalab/poor man’s beans and the ‘tropical’ lettuce and tomato cultivars that thrive during our summer months. You can’t get more Australian than chokos and I love the white cultivar. I will however suggest you avoid any recipe for this vegetable written before 1990. What were they thinking! Vegetable assassination!

    Great article and let’s start saving more seed and conserving our vegetable heritage.


Leave a Reply (no need to register)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.