Open-pollinated, or standard plants, include all heirloom varieties plus non-hybrid varieties of plants which are not old enough to be called heirlooms.Before the early 1900’s and the advent of modern-day hybrids, we grew nothing but open-pollinated plants. Open-pollinated is a term used to describe seed formation without direct human intervention. In order to maintain distinct varieties for seed purposes, they must not be planted close to each other because insects or wind can cause pollination of flowers (this is natural hybridization).
In some cases, with open-pollinated plants like peas, beans, lettuce, and tomatoes pollination occurs within the unopened flowers themselves. This is self-pollination and does not involve bees or wind. A rare bee might occasionally break into the flower and move its pollen to a second flower.
If an open-pollinated variety that comes true to seed is handed down through a family or is grown in a certain locality for at least 50 years, it is called an heirloom. For instance, great grandpa gave it to grandma who gave it to your aunt who passed it along to you. When we grow these open-pollinated varieties, they will have stable traits from one generation to another.
Deliberate hybrid varieties will produce very uniform, usually vigorous plants for only a single season; seeds saved and grown from the hybrid generation are genetically unstable and you will get many unusual and varied results by planting seed harvested from hybrid plants.
Heirloom and other open-pollinated plants may not have the range of disease resistances found in our modern-day hybrids, the fruit may be less uniform, and production may be lower, but many claim better taste in heirlooms than in hybrids. Taste, however, is a highly personal judgement; I have tasted terrible open-pollinated tomatoes and great tasting hybrids, and vice versa. Heirlooms do have an incredible variety of different colors, shapes, and flavor.
There used to be hundreds of thousands of open-pollinated seed varieties. Over time, many became extinct. Since 2000, three mammoth agricultural chemical companies – DowDuPont, Bayer-Monsanto, and Syngenta-ChemChina – have gained control of 60% of the world’s seed sales and are rapidly buying up smaller seed companies. In some countries like India these mega-corporations are developing seed monopolies. Many favorite, old-time heirlooms with unique genetic characteristics have now disappeared from the market. In the last few years, however, there is some hope. I have seen the startup of many small, private seed companies selling open-pollinated and heirloom seed varieties. When you plant and save open-pollinated seeds, you are doing your part to save a little bit of genetic diversity and history.
In general, open-pollinated seeds are less expensive than hybrid seeds. I have seen prices for hybrids up to 50 cents per seed. Hybrids take many years to develop, thousands of test crosses are made, in-bred and extremely stable breeding lines are developed. The developer of the hybrid is trying to recoup his investments. You actually can grow seeds from most hybrids (except those that are sterile), come up with a motley collection of varied plants, carefully cull out unwanted types, and in six to eight generations you will have your own open-pollinated, stable variety. In fifty years, someone may call it an heirloom variety.
What type of seeds should you grow? Each type has advantages and disadvantages. I plant both hybrids and open-pollinated seeds, but with lots of research before purchasing. Each person has their own criteria for choosing a particular variety.
Ramsey County Master Gardener Volunteer