By Jean Smith – I am a diehard for plants grown from heirloom seeds, and I save most of my own seeds for our farm. I thought now would be a good time to give a lesson on the basic differences between hybrid and heirloom seeds. We’ll look at specific definitions of hybrid and heirloom seeds and then I will give my own personal feelings on the two, as well as some of my favorite varieties along with some resources!
The definition and use of the word “heirloom” to describe plants is fiercely debated. One school of thought places an age or date point on the cultivars. For instance, one school says that for heirloom seeds, the cultivar must be more than 100 years old, but others say 50 years, and others prefer the date of 1945, which marks the end of World War II and roughly the beginning of widespread use of hybrid seeds by growers and seed companies. Many gardeners consider 1951 to be the latest year a plant can have originated and still be called heirloom seeds, since that year marked the widespread introduction of hybrid varieties. It was in the 1970s that hybrid seeds began to proliferate in the commercial seed trade through the top seed companies. Some heirloom plants are much older, some being apparently pre-historic.
Another way of defining heirloom seeds is to use the definition of the word “heirloom” in its truest sense. Under this interpretation, a true heirloom is a cultivar that has been nurtured, selected, and handed down from one family member to another for many generations.
Additionally, there is another category of cultivars that could be classified as “commercial heirloom seeds,” cultivars that were introduced many generations ago and were of such merit that they have been saved, maintained, and handed down — even if the seed company has gone out of business or otherwise dropped the line. Additionally, many old commercial releases have actually been family heirlooms that a seed company obtained and introduced.
Regardless of a person’s specific interpretation, most authorities agree that heirloom seeds, by definition, must be open-pollinated. They may also be open-pollinated varieties that were bred and stabilized using classic breeding practices. While there are no genetically modified tomatoes available for commercial or home use, it is generally agreed that no genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be considered heirloom seeds. Another important point of discussion is that without the ongoing growing of heirloom plants and storage of heirloom seeds, the seed companies and the government will control all seed distribution. Most, if not all, hybrid plants, if regrown, will not be the same as the original hybrid plant, thus ensuring the dependency on seed distributors for future crops.
Overview: A hybrid plant is a cross between two or more unrelated inbred plants. Hybridization has brought huge improvements, including more vigorous plants, improved disease resistance, earlier maturity, more uniform growth and increased yield. There are several different types of hybrid seeds and plants to be aware of:
Seed saved from the first cross-pollination of two unrelated open-pollinated plants is called F1 hybrid seed. (F1 stands for Familial 1.) Each of the parents contributes attributes that, when combined, produce an improved type of plant.
A frequent characteristic of F1 hybrids is much-increased vigor. This can take the form of faster growth to maturity, larger root and top growth, and increased productivity. The gains from what is called heterosis greatly exceed the sum of what the parent plants might be expected to produce. Despite recent advances in the understanding of plant genetics, there is still no agreement among scientists about what causes heterosis.
Like other living things, plants are vulnerable to a range of diseases that can cause disappointment in a home garden and huge financial losses in agriculture. One trait that is constantly sought in plant hybridization is resistance—or at least tolerance—of diseases that can affect productivity. In seed catalogs, resistance is noted in an abbreviation after the plant variety name. For example, “Arbason F1 Hybrid, FW (races 0, 1), VW, TMV” means that this tomato has resistance to fusarium wilt races 0 and 1, verticillium wilt and tomato mosaic virus.
While the taste and appearance of open-pollinated and heirloom plants are highly valued, the size and growth rate of fruit and leafy= parts can vary widely. Hybridization can stabilize growth factors, so the grower can harvest much more uniform produce.
Maturity and Yield
In agriculture, the ability to produce a crop early in the season has considerable marketing advantages across all planting zones. The first corn, the first tomatoes, and the first strawberries always command higher prices. Hybrids can be created to achieve this, as well as higher yield, although it is often true that this extra-early produce does not have the full taste of later varieties.
The seed of open-pollinated or heirloom plants can be saved, and when sown will produce plants that are essentially identical to the parent plant. The seed from F1 hybrid plants, called F2 hybrids, will not produce a copy of the parent. Instead, the F2 plant will exhibit “break-up” in the form of random characteristics from either parent or possibly an even earlier trait. What this means is that F1 hybrid seed has to be created from scratch every year by laboriously hand-crossing the parent plants. This helps to explain why hybrid seed can be so expensive.
Read more: Definition of Hybrid Plants: Garden Guides.
Well, that is all the “formal” stuff. Now on to the basics. Heirloom seeds, in my opinion, and I believe most who grow them, will testify to overwhelmingly better flavor. Honestly, it’s not even just better, most of you who have eaten a grocery store tomato and then a fresh tomato know the difference. What most consumers don’t know is that those perfectly shaped tomatoes in the grocery store were picked rock hard green, packed and put in the back of a semi and then gassed to ripen on “the road.” That is why they are flavorless! Think about it … why do you think they intentionally say “Vine Ripened” on the little tomatoes on “the vine?” They have to tell you because they know the others weren’t.
Hybridization has been utilized for making veggies travel-worthy. For example, Brandywine tomatoes have extremely thin skins, therefore making them terrible “travelers.” As a market grower, I do not grow Brandywines for market because they will crack and split before they get to market, thereby making them unsellable, although I love them for my home garden and canning.
Uniformity in shape and size is also a must for grocery stores, not so for market tables. I love to put several different sized and colored heirloom tomatoes in a quart container — it is simply beautiful.
What some people also don’t realize is that there is a big difference between a hybrid and a GMO seed. This is where scientists have actually inserted a gene from another species into a vegetable. For example, putting a fish gene in a tomato … yes, they really do, and they say they have really good reasons for it. GMOs are not what I am going to get into here, though, because that is a really lengthy topic in its own right. You can do your own research, but please understand; most vegetable seeds are not GMO. GMO crops are focused on crops such as corn, soy and alfalfa.
Here are some of my personal favorite heirloom seed varieties for home gardening:
Beefsteak: Pineapple, Brandywine- all colors, Paul Robeson, Dr. Whyche’s, Hillbilly
Romas: Super Italian Paste, Plum Lemon, Roman Candle, all the Icicles, Striped Roman
Salad types: Green and Red Zebra, Woodle Orange, Rose De Berne, Stupice, White Tomesol
Cherry and grapes: Reisentraube, Violet Jasper, Blondkopchen, Red & White Current, Chocolate Cherry, Sungold, Yellow Pear
Rein’s De Glace, Merriville de Four Seasons, Grandpa’s, Red Oak Leaf, Jericho, Forellenschulus, Rubin’s Romaine, Butter Crunch, Lolla Rossa, May Queen, Paris Island Cos, Rouge D’Hiver
White Icicle, Purple Plum, French Breakfast, Cherry Belle, Black Spanish, Pink Beauty
Winter Squash Varieties:
Walthams Butternut, acorn, Sweet Dumpling, Delicata, spaghetti, Green or Orange Buttercup
Round De Nice, Fordhook Zucchini, Prolific Straightneck, Patty Pan, Starburst
Cosmic Purple, Lunar White, Amarillo, Atomic Red, Chantenay Red Core, Danvers Long
Lemon, Marketmore 76, Boston Pickling
Rosa Bianca, Black Beauty, Purple Long, Thai Long
For most home gardeners, it is hard to move away from the hybrids because of the Super Sweet genes that have been introduced in them, but if you want to try an heirloom, Golden Bantam is a very good one.
Sweet: Jimmy Nardello—my personal favorite—long, sweet frying pepper, Red & Golden Marconi, Purple Beauty, Sweet Chocolate,
Hot: Early Jalapeno, Anaheim, Hungarian Hot Wax
Mammoth Melting Sugar, Sugar Snap, Lincoln
Rainbow, Fordhook, Golden
Bloomsdale Longstanding, New Zealand, Merlo Nero
Detroit Dark Red, Early Wonder, Chioggia, Golden Detroit, Crosby’s Egyptian, Cylindra, Bulls Blood
String: Blue Lake Bush, Contender
Wax: Golden Wax
Roma: *Roma, Dragon Tongue, Purple Podded Pole
Late Flat Dutch, Early Jersey Wakefield, Henderson’s Charleston Wakefield, Perfection Drumhead Savoy, Mammoth Red Rock
Calabrese, Waltham 29, Green Sprouting
Purple of Sicily, Giant of Naples, Snowball Self Blanching
Here are a few of my favorite seed catalogs to order from:
Here are a couple recipes — enjoy!
Roasted Carrot Soup
6-8 medium carrots, cleaned and scrubbed, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup coarsely chopped onion
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 14.5-ounce cans chicken broth
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Salt and black pepper
Preheat oven to 425°F. Toss carrots and onion with oil to coat. Spread veggies in a single layer in a shallow baking pan. Roast for 20 minutes or until tender.
In a large saucepan combine roasted vegetables, broth, and paprika. Bring to boiling. Cool slightly.
Transfer half the vegetable mixture at a time to a blender or food processor. Blend or process until smooth. Return mixture to saucepan. Add lemon juice. Heat through. Season with salt and pepper.
3/4 cup apple juice
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon packed brown sugar
2-1/2 pounds beets, peeled and cut into bite size pieces
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon snipped fresh parsley
- In a large saucepan combine 1/2 cup of the apple juice, the water, and brown sugar. Bring to boiling, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add beets. Return to boiling; reduce heat. Simmer, covered, about 45 minutes or until beets are tender and can be pierced with a fork, stirring occasionally. Drain.
2. Transfer beets to serving bowl. Sprinkle remaining juice over beets. Season to taste with salt & pepper. If desired, drizzle with honey.
Originally published in the March/April 2013 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.