When choosing the right variety of fruit or vegetables, many people are confused on whether to opt for heirlooms or pick a hybrid. There are positive and negative qualities of each, so it’s important to know the difference.
The first step is understanding which plants are open-pollinated, heirlooms, hybrids and genetically modified varieties. Open-pollinated varieties are those that produce offspring identical to the parents. You can save the seed (as long as they haven’t accidentally cross-pollinated with another variety,) and enjoy the same variety next season.
Hybrid 'Ambrosia' sweet corn grows next to 'County Bantam' heirloom corn.
Heirlooms are always open-pollinated. But to fit the criteria for an heirloom, they usually date back before World War II, and often have an interesting history behind them. For example, the ‘Mortgage Lifter’ tomato was developed during the Depression by a gentleman who sold the seed to pay off his house.
“A hybrid is a fancy way of saying cross-pollination. It’s a natural process,” says Emily Haga, lettuce and tomato breeder at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. “We make hybrids by controlled mating. We choose things that are going to complement in some way.”
She says, for example, one parent plant might have great flavor and mature early, but is very susceptible to certain diseases. Breeders might cross this one with another that has excellent disease resistance, yet is a mediocre tasting vegetable. By combining these, breeders strive to create a vegetable with the best of both parents. This creates what’s called “hybrid vigor.”
Emily says, “Basically, hybrid vigor is this enhanced vigor you didn’t see in either parent plant. In general, that’s a phenomena people have observed for hundreds of years.”
It’s not easy playing the part of the bee. In order to create a hybrid, breeders must wait until the flower is ripe, but not open. Once it reaches this critical stage, they open up the flower and remove the anther (the male part), unless it’s a variety that’s natural sterilize (meaning it doesn’t have viable male parts.) Then, they must take the anther from the other parent plant, and hand-pollinate the first one.
Hybrid tomatoes have uniform fruit.
The plant must be grown out, the fruit or vegetable harvested and the seeds saved. Since the seeds from the offspring will not produce vegetables that are the same as itself, this has to be done every season.
Genetically modified cultivars are different than hybrids because breeders take one or two genes, often of a different species, and insert it into the DNA of the plant. “It bypasses the natural process,” Emily says.
This is primarily done for commercial crops, such as soybeans and corn, to provide characteristics such as natural disease resistance and the ability to be sprayed with herbicides without damage as a means of weed control.
Choosing the right variety depends on what you’re looking for in your vegetables. Most people who grow any open-pollinated variety, whether a hybrid or a newer OP breed, do so because they want to save their own seeds. As long as they protect the parent plant from being cross-pollinated by another variety (this is done by segregating the crops or covering the flowers,) the seed they plant will grow the same variety.
Most people grow heirlooms because they love the flavor and, oftentimes, the funky and fun shapes and colors. They want to grow the same carrots, peppers and other vegetables their grandparents grew because they remember how good they tasted. It’s a connection to their roots.
'Amana Orange' is a big, meaty tomato from the Amana colonies in Iowa.
For example, ‘Brandywine,’ an heirloom tomato developed in Ohio in the late 1800s, is renowned to be the best flavored tomato in the world, and is a constant in many gardens. But there are also striped ‘Tigerella’ tomatoes or the equally intriguing ‘Cherokee Purple’ with its beautiful color and sweet flavor. Planting heirlooms offers a unique palette of shapes, colors and flavors.
There are a few drawbacks of heirlooms including non-uniform fruit, as well as a lack of disease resistance. The first characteristic may not be important to the home gardener who enjoys the crazy shapes and sizes. The second is a concern. There’s nothing more disheartening than having your crop die year after year because it has no resistance to a common fungal or viral disease.
That’s where hybrids shine. Breeders purposefully develop varieties that can withstand common vegetable problems. A recently introduced hybrid tomato called ‘Iron Lady’ is resistant to late blight, early blight and Septoria leaf blight, three bothersome diseases that plague tomatoes. There are also plenty of hybrids that protect squash against powdery mildew, beans against mosaic virus, and any number of other issues. If you have specific disease concerns in your area, look for hybrids that offer resistance to them.
Even though heirlooms have a reputation for fantastic flavor, hybrids have varieties with exceptional flavor, as well. Hybrid sweet corn brings us the flavor we love, and varieties, such as the ‘Carmen’ sweet pepper, is one of the sweetest peppers you can grow.
Whether you choose heirlooms or hybrids, you really can’t go wrong. It’s more important to read the product descriptions to learn how they’ll grow in your area, as well as the traits you want in your fruits and vegetables.