Open Pollinated or Hybrid?
When Columbus sailed back to Spain with news of a New World, his ships’ holds may have carried seeds from Cucurbita pepo. This group, which today includes zucchini, yellow squash, acorn squash and pumpkins, had been among the mainstays of American agriculture for millennia (10,000 year-old C. pepo seeds have been found in Peru), yet before 1492 no one living outside the Western Hemisphere had ever seen or eaten them.
Europeans avidly adopted the new vegetable – “zucchini” is, of course, Italian, and “pumpkin” comes from a Greek word meaning “large melon,” by way of France. Centuries later, seeds handed down from generation to generation were planted hopefully in backyard gardens by European immigrants starting new lives in the US.
The seeds they brought from home were open-pollinated, as was every seed planted before the early 1900s. OP seeds “breed true,” that is, seeds from this year’s crop will produce a similar plant next year. Seed savers, like the person offering the title squash in the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook, select seeds each year from their best plants, thus breeding strains adapted to their particular conditions. OP plants retain a certain amount of genetic diversity, which provides resilience in times of stress.
In 1924, agronomist and future Vice President Henry A. Wallace developed and sold the first hybrid, a corn variety called “Copper Cross”. The company he founded, known today as Pioneer Hi-Bred, went on to become the largest US producer of hybrid seeds. Hybrids are created by breeding together two lines which have been inbred to reduce genetic diversity. The resulting seeds, the F1 hybrid, combine characteristics of both parent lines to produce consistently high yields. A 2010 article in the Economic Times of India claims that Indian farmers boosted maize (corn) yields 250% simply by planting hybrid varieties.
Today, the best-selling varieties at any seed company are hybrids. Burpee seeds, for example, sells 11 varieties of hybrid zucchini and only 5 varieties that are open-pollinated. But there is a price to pay, literally, for the consistency and high yields that hybrids provide: seed saved from a hybrid will not reliably produce a superior plant, and may produce a significantly inferior one. That means that the grower must purchase seed from the seed company every year, providing an incentive for seed producers to concentrate their breeding programs on hybrid seeds. Home gardeners are often disappointed to find that their favorite variety is no longer available, though it is usually replaced by something “bigger’ and “better.”
Winding up, the monikers “AAS Winner” and heirloom are both ways of highlighting extra value. AAS Selections is the Consumer’s Report of garden seeds, an independent non-profit that fields a panel of judges to choose the best cultivars introduced each year for the home garden.
Heirloom is the most vaguely defined of all the seed terms, very much open to interpretation. Heirlooms may be varieties handed down through individuals, or they may be commercial varieties sold by companies no longer in business (who may have started their breeding program with someone’s home variety), or they may be relatively new varieties developed from older stock. Green Zebra, a tasty green striped tomato, is sometimes considered an heirloom, even though it was developed in the 1980s. All heirloom seed is open-pollinated.
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