Understanding Heirloom and Hybrid Varieties

Tomato Hybrid Chocolate SprinklesGardeners today have access to a large number of different varieties of flowers, herbs, and vegetables. In some crops, there are so many varieties available that choosing what to grow can be difficult or even overwhelming, especially for new gardeners.

Historically, most plant varieties have been “open pollinated”. This means that when seed is saved and replanted, the resulting seedlings will be very similar to the parent plants. Gardeners of the past had to grow some plants specificially for seed production, to ensure that they would have seed to plant in future seasons. Growing open pollinated varieties allowed them to save seed each year. Over time, this often resulted in locally adapted varieties that grew well in a given region.

Open pollinated varieties with a long history of being grown are often called “heirloom” varieties. There is no standard definition of what makes a variety an heirloom. Some sources consider varieties that have been available for 50 years or more heirlooms, while others don’t consider a variety an heirloom until it has been around for 75 years or more. And other sources only consider non-commercial varieties that were saved and preserved by home gardeners as “true” heirlooms. The full history of an heirloom variety usually can’t be verified, and this can lead to confusion about the true origin and lineage of heirloom varieties.

There are good reasons that heirloom varieties have persisted for many years, whether as commercial offerings or though the efforts of seed saving by home gardeners. Heirlooms can be adapted to a specific region of the country where they originated and were maintained. Many heirloom varieties were brought to the US by immigrants from their home countries, and they help to preserve ties to the culture and cuisine of a family’s country of origin. Heirloom varieties are frequently noted for having exceptional flavor.

Tomato Hybrid Lemon BoyThere can also be some downsides to heirlooms. Yields may be moderate or low compared to hybrid varieties, and heirlooms may not begin producing until late in the season. Disease resistance is generally not be as strong in heirlooms as in modern open pollinated and hybrid varieties.

Fortunately, some of the downsides of heirlooms can be overcome by using grafted plants. In grafting, a variety (the “scion”) is grafted onto a rootstock that is highly vigorous and disease resistant. Grafted vegetables typically have increased vigor, earlier production, and improved yield compared to ungrafted comparisons, and they also have improved resistance to soil-bourne diseases.

Since the 1940s, there has been an increase in the number of hybrid varieties available. Hybrid varieties are produced through controlled crossing of open pollinated parent lines. All of the hybrid varieties that we offer have been developed through traditional breeding methods, and none were produced by artificially moving genes between species with high tech genetic modification to produce a genetically modified organism (GMO). Seeds produced from hybrid crosses combine genes from both parents , leading to plants that are more vigorous and productive than either parent. This phenomenon is called “hybrid vigor”. Hybrids are often labelled with the designation “F1”, meaning the seed is from the first generation of a hybrid cross.

Many hybrid varieties have been developed with improved resistance to common diseases. Unfortunately, many vegetable hybrids developed for commercial growers were bred for high yield and good shipping and handling characteristics, and not for optimal flavor or eating qualities. Fortunatley, this is changing, and more and more breeders are focusing on flavor characteristics in the hybrid varieties that they are developing.

Unlike open pollinated varieties, seed saved from hybrid varieties will not breed true. That is, saved seed from a hybrid variety will not produce uniform plants similar to the initial hybrid. Instead, saved seeds will produce plants with varying traits and appearances, including those simliar to each of the parent varieties.

Some breeders are developing hybrid varieties created by crossing popular heirloom varieties. Examples include the Heirloom Marriage series of tomatoes. Some breeders and suppliers use the term “heirloom hybrids” for such crosses, but this term can be confusing, as as all heirlooms are open pollinated, non-hybrid varieties. Others use the less confusing term “heritage hybrid” for hybrids developed from heirloom parents.Pepper Hybrid Chilli Pie

There are also  a number of professional, amateur, and small-scale breeders developing new open pollinated varieties. Some sources label these varieties as “created heirlooms”, but  this term can be misleading, especially for varieties that have not yet been grown long enough to have passed the test of time. These varieties are more properly considered open pollinated.

There are many varieties of open pollinated, heirlooms, and hybrid varieties worthy of considering for the garden. In small gardens, hybrid varieties may be the best option for maximum  production in a limited space. For gardeners looking for varieties with strong disease resistance, hybrids and certain open pollinated varieties are good choices. Adventurous gardeners looking to learn how to save seed from their garden plants can choose open pollinated and heirloom varieties.

Feature Varieties

Pepper Beaver Dam

Heirloom – Beaver Dam Pepper

Joe Hussli’s family brought seed for a bull’s horn pepper to Wisconsin from Hungary when they immigrated to Beaver Dam in 1912. The family preserved the variety in their garden and eventually named it for their new home town, where it gained local popularity. It produces flavorful, horn-shaped fruit with a mild spiciness that ripen from green to red. The city of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin now hosts an annual pepper festival in early September to honor the increasingly famous pepper that bears its name!

Tomato Hybrid Mountain Merit

Hybrid – Mountain Merit Tomato

Mountain Merit is a newer hybrid tomato variety that was developed for strong disease resistance combined with good flavor and production. It won a regional All-America Selections award (Heartland Region) in 2014. Mountain Merit was bred at North Carolina State University by noted tomato breeder Dr. Randy Gardner. It is a determinate, midseason, fresh use variety with large, 8 to 10 oz. fruit. Mountain Merit has become popular with both professional market gardeners and home gardeners. It has excellent resistance to diseases, including fusarium (races 1, 2, and 3), verticillium, nematodes, tomato spotted wilt virus, early blight, and late blight!

Cucumber Spacemaster 80

Open Pollinated – Spacemaster 80 Cucumber

An early and productive variety with a compact habit and vines that grow just 3 feet long. Spacemaster 80 was bred by Dr. Henry M. Munger of Cornell University as an improved, more disease resistant version of his original Spacemaster. It has good resistance to cucumber mosaic virus and scab, and intermediate resistance to powdery mildew. Spacemaster 80 is an excellent choice for small gardens and can be grown in containers. It was introduced in 1980.


Allen R. Pyle is the lead horticulturalist at Jung Seed Co. and has been a professional horticulturist for over 20 years, with decades of experience in gardening and landscaping. Allen has degrees in both horticulture and entomology from Michigan State University. He has extensive experience in plant propagation, pest management, growing perennials, and organic gardening. His knowledge spans a wide range of plants, including edibles, ornamentals, herbs, weeds, and native species. Allen is passionate about plants and gardening and is always happy to share his knowledge and expertise with others. He regularly speaks and writes on plant-related topics for both professional and amateur gardening audiences. Allen is also certified in Permaculture design.

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