Seed Saving: Knowing the Difference Between Hybrids, Heirlooms, and Open-Pollinated Plants

Lots of home gardeners and small farmers are interested in saving seeds.  Aside from saving money, saving seeds helps to preserve interesting varieties, diversify crop genetics and preserve cultural identity and heritage.  The question I hear the most from folks wanting to save seeds is – “What can I save?”   The next question is “How do I save them?”  In reality, the biggest decisions actually come in selecting seeds and how to plant them, and not in actual saving and storing of the seeds.  The first discussion when starting seed saving is:

 Hybrid vs Open Pollinated vs Heirloom – What’s the difference?

Punnett square

The offspring from a hybrid can have many different traits.

Hybrid plants are the result of a controlled breeding process, developed through a series of crosses where the parent plants impart the offspring with desirable traits.  The breeding process can be long and involved, especially since the process is so controlled.  The benefit to newer hybrids is that there has been a focus on disease resistance, where the plants usually have fewer diseases and thus requires fewer pest control inputs.  Hybrids also benefit from what is called “hybrid vigor,” where the plants exhibit stronger, more vital growth, higher yields and even higher survival from the seedling stage.

The big drawback with hybrids, especially for those who are interested in saving seeds, is that you really can’t do so with most hybrids.  Due to the long, involved process in developing the hybrid, the genetics of the hybrid aren’t stable enough to allow the seeds to be self-sustaining.  This means that instead of traits of the parent plant, you end up with a random mix of traits from the grandparent plants and earlier generations.

Common Misconceptions: Hybrids and GMOs are Not the Same

One misconception that I’ve seen is that folks think that hybrids are genetically modified organisms.  This isn’t true-they are developed from many generations of natural breeding that is directed by human hands.  The fact of the matter is that there are currently no genetically modified seeds or plants available to the general public.  Genetically modified organisms are developed through direct genetic modification in a lab, usually using DNA insertion or deletion.  Currently, you will only find these seeds in commodity crops, such as field corn, soy, cotton, etc. For more information, see this discussion Are GMO Seeds Available for Purchase?


Beans are a commmonly saved crop, since their self-pollination results in little crossing with other varieties. (Photo: Flickr, Jason Anfineson)

Open-pollinated plants are those who have stable genetics, where seeds can be saved with a promise that the offspring will be similar.  Due to the variability of the natural pollination process, though, there may be variations from individual to individual.   In order to save seeds, though, it is often necessary to isolate the plants to ensure that there is no cross pollination from other varieties in the garden, in the neighbors garden and sometimes as far as miles away.  (I hope to discuss this topic in a follow-up article.)

Heirlooms are simply open-pollinated varieties that have developed outside of the commercial plant trade and have a historical or cultural significance (a “backstory”).   However, not all open-pollinated seeds are heirlooms.  There is no hard and fast definition of “heirloom” as some also consider age a determining factor in the “heirloom” designation.  The common age is usually 50 years.  The seeds have been passed from generation-to-generation and often have a local or even familial significance.  Several smaller seed companies have found a niche in the market by exclusively selling heirloom seeds, and even large commercial seed companies are following suit.

For more information on heirloom resources, see this past blog post on Cooperative Extension heirloom vegetable resources.

You may also wish to find more information on heirlooms and hybrids at the following sources:

A Local Case Study:


The WV ’63 tomato was a hit! (Photo courtesy: West Virginia University)

Consider the WV ’63 tomato.  It was developed and released from my institution, WVU, 50 years ago in celebration of the state centennial.  It was developed through several generations of breeding, but it is an open-pollinated variety.  It was a breakthrough, since it was one of the first tomatoes developed with late blight resistance.  Since its release, it has mainly been maintained by growing it at the university farm for seeds and plants sold from the campus greenhouse and by a few small producers in the state and by local seed savers.  It is not common in general garden catalogs, though it is available through one that sells heirloom varieties.

This year, to celebrate the state’s sesquicentennial and the tomato’s 50th birthday, WVU Extension had a massive giveaway program, where an attractive “collector” seed packet was developed and citizens (and others) could request free tomato seeds.  Well over 20,000 requests were made and no more are available.  But the question that I often get is “is it an heirloom?”  What do you think?  Is it an heirloom?  You can read more about the WV ’63 here and  as well as watch a wonderful video from the man who developed it here.

   John Porter
   Extension Agent, WVU Extension Service
   Charleston, WV

You can win your very own packet of WV ’63 Tomato seeds, as well as a selection of other heirlooms by answering the following questions on the blog page or as a Facebook comment (one lucky winner will be chosen at random from those who answer the questions):

1)  Do you think that the WV ’63 an heirloom?

2) What is your favorite variety, heirloom or hybrid, to grow? 

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7 Responses to “Seed Saving: Knowing the Difference Between Hybrids, Heirlooms, and Open-Pollinated Plants”

  1. LMS says:

    At the ripe age of 50, I certainly consider the WV 63 an heirloom! My favourite heirloom right now is ‘Moneymaker’ (a determinate, from England).

  2. Ray Eckhart says:

    If we accept the “outside of the commercial plant trade” part, then WNV ’63 doesn’t qualify as an heirloom. I’m not a purist on this issue, however. Green Zebra, for example, is always listed as an heirloom, despite its deliberate breeding, and non-compliance with the “50-year” rule.

    My favorite heirloom is Aunt Ruby German Green, and I’m planning to graft it to Territorial’s rootstock this year to improve yield, and just ‘cuz.

    Click on the name above for a link to information I put together to celebrate the fabulous flavor of my favorite big berry.

  3. Lorna Williamson says:

    I say yes, it is an heirloom. It qualifies on age, it has a backstory, local significance and is open-pollinated. And I consider WVU an educational institution, not commercial. Hard to choose a favorite when it comes to heirloom tomatoes, but Brandywine comes to mind since i grew them last year.

  4. Papa Pig says:

    I would say yes it’s now an heirloom. It has the back story, age, limited availability often associated with heirlooms. You can save the seeds. Wow would I love to have even half a dozen seeds.
    My favorite heirlooms are Purple Cherokee, Mortgage Lifter, Arkansas Traveler, Tater of Mongolistan.
    Pink Brandywines are just cool looking and taste good. Green Zebra and Aunt Ruby’s German Green for us southerns that fry the green ones.

  5. Neil Shamblin says:

    I believe the definition of heirloom is changing and is more simple today. Based on the GMO scare most people today consider an heirloom to be a plant that can reproduce itself, (a perfect copy),by means of its seeds and the seeds can be saved by the grower.
    My favorite heirloom this year is a Pink Beefsteak given to me by my father, He has been growing for decades and now I will be able to do the same thanks to this Heirloom seed.

  6. Pam Woods says:

    I believe it to be an heirloom. I am just getting started, so am not sure which is better.