Friday, July 30, 2010

Heirloom vs Open Pollinated (OP)

 It seems that more than a few people have no idea what the difference is. Is there a difference? Oh yes, there is.

 "Heirloom" to identify a cultivar is somewhat ambiguous. By that I mean there is no set perimeters by which to formerly classify an open pollinated strain as "old".  As it is all "heirloom" cultivars are open pollinated and often a story can be linked to the name of the variety. Many of these strains were created by backyard gardeners through selecting specific qualities . Some were handed down to the next generation as a family tradition, some were sold to seed companies, etc. 

 It is like this... you have a horse and it is an Arabian... you breed it to another Arabian.. the result is the foal as well will be an Arabian. Heirloom... the Arab has papers.. you can trace the pedigree to some extent. 

 Open pollinated strains are not hybrids. A cultivar must be stabilized over 7+ generations to be considered an open pollinated strain. Here is a key difference... open pollinated strains are more current and as well tend to have more focus on resistances. This does not mean GMO, this means by selection. Example.. going back to wild sources to harness a sport that has shown natural means to resist some diseases/ pests/ etc. and then crossing it to a current strain.. then repeatedly selecting the specific qualities until the end result is a stabilized strain with the desired qualities.

 I am all for maintaining strains. I find it a worthwhile and rewarding endeavor. In effect by maintaining a cultivar over the years, you are in effect creating your own strain. Unavoidable as over time the plants that do best, produce best, etc. are ones that are becoming acclimated to your micro climate.

 What makes me cringe is encountering those that say "only heirlooms!" and don't really know what it means. Old strains are around for a reason.. usually for unique characteristics or superb flavor. Their primary selling point ironically is that they used to be more available... were thought to be almost lost and now are commercially available again. Many of these old strains though are notoriously finicky (and some have little disease resistances), and while some are renown for their flavor, not usually for production.

 So if you  looking to save seeds, for whatever your reason... personal enjoyment, the challenge, survival preparedness, etc. remember diversity and variety is important. (Then make sure to brush up on how to maintain a strain and control cross pollination!)


  1. Nice post. I admit to not really knowing myself although I started to get the hint a bit this season.

    I had been assuming that if the seeds were not printed as being heirloom they were a hybrid. You pointed out to me that most squash/zucchini were in fact open pollinated.

    Since then I have been going on the loose guideline that if it doesn't say hybrid it must be open pollinated.

    I am also finding out you are very correct in the finicky statement as well.

    Cross pollination is another issue I am working on now.

  2. You are correct... legally hybrids are REQUIRED to be listed as such. GMO strains fall in under as hybrid strains.

    As for species.. not all seeds will list what species they are so sometimes some searching is needed to see what can cross with what in order to control some cross pollination. One of the easier food crops are beans (you can often notice if something crossed as it will sometimes show in the bean's coloration.) All peas and beans are open pollinated.

    Here's another thing about seeds... legally they have over a year to post the "sell by" date from the time they do and pass the germination testing. Levels of germination vary from crop to crop as some seeds naturally have a very short viability (like onion, parsnip and the like are notorious for low germination/ short storage life).

  3. Interesting. Yet I have planted beans that were listed as hybrid on the package.

    The type of black bean I used last year and the year before said hybrid which is why I went to the type I planted this year.

    Also I am getting wide variations on bean looks, pod looks and colors.

  4. And this is where the fun begins! So you take bean A and cross it with bean B... and the result is bean C. Technically a hybrid as it comes from crossing 2 different types and has not been stabilized over 7 generations to be declared open pollinated.

    However... if you take bean C and plant just that bean (with no others around... ahem like honeybees which like to play in bean flowers).. harvest it's seeds you should get a crop like the original bean C. Beans and peas without pollinating visitors will self pollinate.

    Now some strains labeled as hybrids are from crosses between plant A with plant B and offers a predictable offspring being plant C. The best way I can explain this is mare + jack = mule. (or stud + jenny = hinny) Although that primary cross between 2 different strains offers predictable results for the 1st generation, those hybrids now have a potential arsenal of various traits from both parents. I say potential because some hybrids are able to be reproduced and can offer subsequent generations that are just like the 1st generation.

    The reason for opting for OP and heirloom is that you know already the strain is stable. Propagating hybrids it is a gamble. Some pay off... some don't.. only way to know is to dabble and grow it out to see what happens.

    For you and your collection of working girls.. you would want to think of planting in blocks vs rows if isolation cages are not an option. Also planting different crops (preferably of larger stature) between the different types.

    Now for the GMO tangent. GMO crops fall in under as hybrids. The reason they are a problem is that the GMO crops created by infusing genetics of a separate species to create GMO hybrid 1.. is that many times those genetics are dominant. In either case of a hybrid resulting from a non GMO cross and a GMO creation the lineage is able to be hidden under patents/ trade secrets/ etc.

    While some GMO hybrids are able to reproduce.. some are partially sterile. Example.. the male flower of a melon produces only sterile pollen, however the female may be pollinated by a different strain. The result may be a plant that produces fruit even when cross pollinated by the same strain, however the seeds are all sterile.

    This aspect is frightening if you are looking to save seeds for survival purposes. This prospect however to seed companies looks like a gold mine.

    As more than a few questionable companies are already dabbling in this adventure.. diversity as well as having some sort of non contaminated strain is going to fall squarely on the shoulders of the backyard seed saver.

  5. Hmmm so did my golden dragon tongue beans which didn't climb like they were said to perhaps get cross pollinated as seeds?

    Basically this variety I purchased said it was an heirloom but produced two very different pants.

    The one that climbed looked nothing like the one that didn't but the ones that didn't climb looked like the plant was advertised to look.

    Very odd

  6. Possible... although it could very well be a mix up of strains when the seed were packaged.

    I'd contact the company you purchased them from and let them know. Be sure to mention they are not diseased and also growing in similar conditions. A rogue every now and then happens.. but not that many.