Seeds: What Do All These Terms Mean?

What Do All These Terms Mean?
When it comes to vegetable seeds and plants, there are a few terms that get used a lot: open-pollinated, heirloom, hybrid, organic and genetically modified. They all sound important, but what do they really mean? Here’s a quick explanation.

Open-pollinated – First, an explanation of pollination. Pollination is the process that plants use to reproduce. Pollen from the flower of one plant gets transferred to the flower of another plant and seeds are formed. This transfer of pollen typically occurs by insects, animals or wind. In this process, the genetic information of one parent (the producer of the pollen) gets blended with the genetic information of the other parent (the recipient of the pollen) and a similar, but genetically different offspring is the result in seed that is formed. This mixing of genetic information is a natural process and allows for the diversity that we naturally find within a plant species.

When it comes to the vegetables grow, open-pollinated varieties refer to unique breeding lines within a species. These breeding lines develop over time. Crops are planted and weak plants or those that don’t display characteristics that resemble the others are eliminated. The remaining plants are allowed to pollinate openly with each other, seed is collected and then saved. The next year the same thing happens and again and again, year after year. Eventually through this repetitive process, the natural variation within this variety begins to disappear and the blood-line becomes more stable, but since it is still open-pollinated, it still containing some genetic diversity which is good. In a true open-pollinated variety, seed saved from one crop can be used to plant a new one and the new one will have the same genetic characteristics as the parent crop. Open-pollinated varieties only remain genetically true only if they are not allowed to cross with other varieties. 

Heirloom – These are open-pollinated varieties that have been around for a long time, 50 to 100 years or even more. These breeding lines have been typically been passed down within a family or community. All heirloom varieties are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated varieties are heirlooms…only the real old ones.

Hybrid – All plant varieties are technically hybrids, or the result of the blending of the genetic information (pollen) of two different parents. But when talking about vegetable varieties, the term hybrid usually refers to the offspring of two different species or two distinctly different blood-lines. For example, if two different heirloom varieties are planted side by side and allowed to open-pollinate with each other, the seeds that they produce would be a hybrid, or a blending to the two breeding lines.
Although hybridization can occur naturally, commercially hybridized seed is bred through a controlled process to create the desired results. Parent plants are carefully selected based on plant characteristics like fruit size or disease resistance and other pollen sources are eliminated, allowing for controlled pollination. If the plant breeder has found the right combination of parents to produce a desirable variety, this new hybrid gets goes into commercial production and hybrid seed is produced. It this hybrid occurs by crossing two true breeding lines, the result is called an F1 hybrid.
It is important to note that although hybrid varieties produce plants with known characteristics, the seeds that they produce will not. Because of the genetic mixing that takes place in your garden when natural pollination is allowed to occur, seeds produced from a commercial hybrid that you have planted will not come true to type. Therefore, replanting of this variety from year to year requires the purchase of new seed from the supplier who does the hybridizing.

Genetically Modified – For this plant discussion, genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are plant varieties that have been created in the laboratory by introducing very specific genes into the genetic material of the new variety. These genes would not typically cross into the plant naturally and may come from vastly different organisms.
GMOs have been around since the 1980’s and are now widely found in commercially grown crops like corn, soybeans and cotton. It is expensive technology and the GMO varieties and the genetics they contain are tightly controlled by the companies that own them. While there is a lot of controversy surrounding them, it is important to note that they are only available to commercial farmers under very specific contractual controls. GMO seeds are not available to homeowners in retail stores.

Organic – Seed that is labeled organic has been produced through organic gardening practices. When growing vegetables, organic usually means producing crops without the use of commercial pesticides and fertilizers.

Many gardeners choose to grow their crops organically or as organically as they can. Some of those folks feel that to truly grow organically, the seeds that are planted must also be produced organically. Others disagree, feeling that as long as the crop is grown organically, it doesn’t matter how the seed was grown. Unless you are planning on growing commercially and achieving an Organic Certification for your garden, the choice is yours.      

Hopefully that helps. If you find still find yourself confused by all the terminology, come on out and ask us your questions. We’ll try to help clear things up.