Gardening Articles: Care :: Seeds & Propagation

Hybrid or Open Pollinated

by Ben Watson

Careful observation and detailed notes are key to the identifying superior vegetable varieties

It's a struggle, even for experienced gardeners, to choose the best varieties of vegetables. Every catalog description includes only positive information, so each one sounds wonderful. That's why it's important to read between the lines, and to do that you must be familiar with the seedsman's terminology. One of the most common words in seed catalogs today is "hybrid." Its opposite, usually unnoted, is "open-pollinated" (abbreviated OP).

For the past few years, gardeners have been flooded with information--and a great deal of misinformation--on the relative merits of hybrid and OP vegetable varieties. In some quarters, the distinctions feed a passionate debate, and of course, each point of view has its champions. Various controversies are involved, but in almost every discussion one issue inevitably arises: Which type of plant is better suited to today's home garden, hybrids or OPs?

While this is a logical question, it presupposes that one of these huge, catchall groups is either wholly superior or wholly inferior to the other. In reality, both hybrids and OPs have their merits, and both deserve space in your garden. But first, let's back up. I'd like to share with you some of what I've learned from various seed professionals regarding this controversy. Then I'll take a closer look at some specific differences between hybrids and OPs.

What's Open-Pollinated Seed?

What's Open-Pollinated Seed?
Bags prevent normal wind pollination of corn allowing breeders to control crossing

Open-pollinated vegetable varieties reproduce themselves in one of two ways: cross-pollination between two plants (via wind, insects or water) or self-pollination (between male and female flower parts contained within the same flower or separate flowers on the same plant). Beets, brassicas, carrots, corn and squash are cross-pollinating, and so require isolation in the field to keep varieties true. Beans, lettuce, peas and tomatoes are self-pollinating, do not require isolation and are the easiest for seed-saving home gardeners to sustain year to year.

So long as plants of an OP variety are kept isolated from different plants with which they can cross, they will produce seed that will come "true to type." In other words, the plants in the following generation will resemble the parent plants.

Many of the older strains of OPs, often refered to as "heirlooms," are not so much varieties as they are populations. In other words, individual plants within an older named variety can possess a great deal of genetic variability and may even vary in size and shape.

Up until the early 1900's, almost all cross-pollinating OP varieties represented this broad "gene pool" kind of population. But as plant breeders worked to develop new OPs, they began learning various new techniques to create more uniform varieties of plants.

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