What is an heirloom (aka: Open Pollinated)?
Open pollinated varieties are the traditional varieties which have been grown and selected for their desirable traits for millennia. They grow well without high inputs because they have been selected under organic growing conditions. An heirloom is a cultivar that was commonly grown in earlier periods of in human history, but which is not used in modern large-scale agriculture. Many heirloom vegetables have kept their traits through open pollination, while fruits such as apples have been propagated over the centuries through grafts and cuttings.
Open-pollinated, also known as heirloom or standard, plants are varieties that have stable traits from one generation to the next. Open pollinated plants are fairly similar to each other but not as uniform as hybrids. Because most were originally chosen for only one or two specific characteristics, individual plants of older heirloom varieties may differ greatly in size, shape, or other traits.
Open pollinated varieties are usually grown in fields where they self and cross-pollinate. Wind and insects carry the pollen from one plant to another. Plants that cross-pollinate must be isolated from other plants of different varieties so they will produce seed that is “true to type.” Beans, lettuce, peas, and tomatoes are self-pollinating so they are easier to continue year to year without having to isolate them from other varieties of plants.
The advantage of open pollinated seeds is that the home gardener from year to year and generation to generation may continue heirloom plants by careful seed saving. Open pollinated plants provide a larger gene pool for future breeding. Well known open pollinated varieties include ‘Kentucky Wonder’ pole bean, ‘Scarlet Nantes’ carrot, ‘Black Beauty’ eggplant, ‘Black Seeded Simpson’ lettuce, ‘California Wonder’ pepper, and ‘Brandywine’ and ‘Roma’ tomatoes. To learn more about our heirloom tomatoes, read this tip.
What is a hybrid?
Hybrid seeds are the first generation offspring of two distant and distinct parental lines of the same species. Seeds taken from a hybrid may either be sterile or more commonly fail to breed true, not incorporating and expressing the desired traits of the parent.
The primary disadvantage of hybrids is the seeds cannot be saved from year to year. Seeds saved from hybrid plants usually will not produce the same plant the following year because most varieties are not self-sustaining. Offspring of hybrids usually show an unpredictable mixture of characteristics from the grandparent plants instead of being similar to the parent.
Are heirlooms the better choice?
Heirloom varieties have better flavor, are hardier and have more flexibility than hybrid varieties. Breeders cannot manipulate complex characteristics such as flavor as easily as they can size and shape.
Heirloom seeds are dynamic, that is they mutate and adapt to the local ecosystem, as opposed to modern hybrids which are static and do not adapt to the region they are grown in. They are necessary to continue traditional breeding methods to develop crops which can adapt to a changing climate.
Commercial breeders lack the incentive to produce new open pollinated varieties from which farmers could save seed and replant. It’s cheaper to buy new seed each year, and in the current American marketplace, it is more desirable to have a good looking tomato with a long shelf life, than one with flavor.
What’s wrong with hybrids?
Hybrids are not necessarily all bad. They produce high yields and consistent product which can be a good thing in terms of feeding lots of people and accommodating regional growing conditions.
The development of hybrid seeds enabled the beginning of the commercial seed market. Farmers were persuaded to buy new hybrid seed each season, replacing the traditional practice of of farm-saved seed. Hybrids have been bred with an emphasis on yield at the expense of hardiness, pest resistance and flavor. Breeders will sacrifice disease resistance where pesticides are available.
Reliance on these seeds enforces the use of chemical inputs. Hybrid seeds, including Genetically modified seeds (those which are often designed to contain their own pesticide or to be resistant to herbicide sprays) and their required fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation systems have trapped many of the world’s poorest farmers into a cycle of debt.
source: CCF staff
photos: CCF staff