What Exactly is a Hybrid Seed?
By Jenny Brown
I’m a seed saver myself and grow mostly open-pollinated and heirloom varieties. But, for educational purposes, I wanted to explain what a hybrid seed is to help sort out fact from fiction.
Many gardeners are wary of the word ‘hybrid’ because they are concerned that hybrid seeds are seeds that have been developed by an unnatural process in a laboratory. In reality, it is just a seed that has been selectively cross-pollinated by hand.
Cross-pollination happens in nature by one variety of plants receiving pollen (by air or insect) from another variety of the same plant species. As seed savers, we hand-pollinate some of our plants to prevent this natural process from occurring and keep our seed varieties pure.
Cross-pollination can occur in some plant species when an insect carries pollen from one plant to another.
A hybrid seed is a seed variety that has been developed by manually taking a male flower from one variety of plants and a female flower from another variety of the same plant species, and hand-pollinating them.
This is repeated several times over the course of a few weeks. It is a labor-intensive process that is done right out in the fields, not in a laboratory. Many seed companies grow their hybrid crops overseas to keep the labor costs down.
Why are Hybrid Seeds Developed?
Hybrids are developed to create an improved variety by taking the qualities of two different varieties (such as fruit size, flavor, early development, disease resistance, etc.) and coming up with a plant that has both qualities.
The first-year seeds from this new hybrid plant (F1 means the first generation) will not produce identical plants to the parent plant. This is why hybrids are not recommended for gardeners who plan on saving seeds.
Can Hybrid Seeds Reproduce?
Not always. The crossing of two varieties may produce sterile seeds that do not germinate. The plant may produce a mutated version that isn’t desired or it may not produce any fruit at all.
It takes 6-10 years of selective inbreeding of the new variety (or selecting the best plants for hand-pollinating and saving seeds from these selected plants) to create a stable variety.
Some hybrid tomatoes have been developed specifically for greenhouse growing
This is not a simple process for the amateur gardener. There is a lot of time, experimentation, and a reasonable amount of botany knowledge that goes into developing a new variety. To some advanced gardener’s this might be a challenging project; this is how new open-pollinated varieties are developed!
The biggest drawback of hybrid seeds is not that they are genetically altered or undergo being toyed within a lab, but that they do not have the ability to reproduce themselves. The average gardener who wants to practice sustainability by saving seed varieties and replanting them the following year rather than having to buy new seeds each year will want to stick with open-pollinated or heirloom seeds.
Heirloom spinach seeds
Seeds do lose their ability to germinate over time, so a plant variety must be grown and new seeds must be saved to preserve a variety. Many seed savers are concerned that we will lose historical and native seeds with the use of hybrid seeds. Seed savers across the country, including on our small farm, are working to bring some of these rare seeds back into our gardens.
Open-pollinated and heirloom varieties will also change from year to year depending on soil quality, plant health, maturity of the fruit, and seed selection. To preserve open-pollinated and heirloom varieties, one must always work towards improving stock because plant varieties will naturally decline in quality on their own.
The Decision to Grow or not to Grow Hybrids – What We do in our Garden
We grow mostly open-pollinated and heirloom varieties. Last year we did not grow any hybrids but with our short growing season, it is very difficult to grow the heat-loving eggplant that supplies the size and quantity we need for my family’s favorite eggplant salsa (a recipe given to me by an eastern European friend).
So, this year we will be growing a hybrid eggplant to get the quantities I need in the short amount of growing days we have. I still continue to keep my eyes open for any new open-pollinated varieties that developed.
Our garden has grown with 100% open-pollinated (including heirloom) seeds last year
If you plan to grow hybrid varieties, keep in mind that hybrid plants still have the ability to cross with open-pollinated or heirloom plants of the same species. You will want to be sure to protect your seed-saving plants from any cross-pollination to keep your seeds pure.
So, growing a hybrid does not mean you are growing an unnatural vegetable whose DNA has been messed with under a microscope. But, unless you are an experienced and determined seed saver up for the long-term project of sustaining a new variety, hybrid seeds do not provide us an ongoing seed supply for our gardens.