Hybrid vs. Open Pollinated vs. Heirloom

As we think about purchasing plants for our Georgia community gardens, especially tomatoes, there are choices to be made.  Is a hybrid the best choice?  What exactly is a hybrid?  What about heirlooms?

Today we are going to think back to our high school genetics class and discuss a bit about plant breeding.  Pollen is located on the anther part of the stamen (male part).  It is transferred by insect, wind, human hands, or other means to the stigma part of the flower (female part).   This is pollination.  There the pollen grows down the style to the ovary. That is fertilization.  Any of that sound familiar?



A hybrid vegetable is created when a plant breeder deliberately controls pollination by cross-pollinating two different varieties of a plant.  The parent plants are chosen for characteristics like fruit size, plant vigor, or disease resistance.  The hope is that the resulting offspring will have the positive characteristics.

Millionaire Eggplant Hybrid
Millionaire Eggplant Hybrid

The parent designated as the female has the pollen-bearing anthers removed from the flowers.  Pollen from a carefully chosen partner is moved to the female plant’s stigma by human hands.  The chosen pollen is the only pollen that female receives.  This is all very time consuming and carefully monitored.  Scientifically it looks like this:

Parent 1 (P1) + Parent 2 (P2)  —-> Hybrid (F1)

The resulting hybrid (hopefully) has wonderful characteristics like disease resistance, early maturing fruit, larger fruit, or whatever the plant breeder was trying to achieve.  Before a hybrid is available to the consumer, it has gone through many field tests and trials.  All this is why hybrids are more expensive plants.

One negative to hybrids is that you can’t save the seed.  Seeds grown from hybrid plants do not provide plant types true-to-type.   You need to purchase new hybrids year after year.  Big Boy and Early Girl are examples of hybrid tomatoes.  Millionaire and Early Midnight are popular hybrid eggplants.

Arkansas Traveler tomatoes ready to go in the ground.
Arkansas Traveler tomatoes ready to go in the ground.

Open pollinated vegetables are pollinated in the field by wind or natural pollinators to self or cross-pollinate.  Plants that cross-pollinate need to be isolated from other varieties to produce seed that is true-to-type.  Crops like tomatoes and beans tend to self-pollinate so saving useful seed is not difficult.  Arkansas Traveler, Abraham Lincoln, and Cherokee Purple are popular open pollinated tomato varieties.  Black Beauty is a popular open pollinated eggplant variety.

Heirlooms are generally open pollinated plant varieties that are over 50 years old.  Traditionally the seed has been carefully saved and handed down from gardener to gardener.  These are the plants most treasured.

So whether you choose hybrids, open pollinated plants, heirlooms, or a combination of these…

Happy Gardening!