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Seeds: Organic, Open Pollinated and Hybrid

Q. Hi Mike! I'm looking at some organic seeds for sale at the Gardens Alive website, and was curious as to whether these are hybrids or the kind I can collect seeds from to plant the following season. Thanks for any help.

    ---Linda; in the suburbs 30 miles west of Philadelphia
A. The term you're looking for is 'open-pollinated', Linda; that's how we refer to plants whose seeds will normally produce the exact same varieties in subsequent seasons. As you seem to know, seeds from hybrids will not.

Now, some people are under the (mistaken) impression that 'hybrid' and 'organic' are incompatible. The current fast and furious arrival of this season's seed catalogs makes this a great time of year to explain what all these words mean—and how you can be sure of exactly what you're getting.

Let's start with organic. Organic seeds are, of course, produced by flowers, veggies and such that have been grown without the use of man-made chemical fertilizers or pesticides. But contrary to what some horticultural Luddites would have you believe, that's just the beginning of the definition. To be certified organic, crops must also be raised in a sustainable manner, with care taken to improve the health of the soil.

Organic crops can be open-pollinated or hybrids, but they cannot be the result of genetic engineering—that is, the insertion of DNA foreign to the plant. (That's why many people invest in buying organic—it's really the only way to avoid genetically modified foods when shopping or eating out in our modern world.)

Ah, but no genetically modified seeds of any kind are available to home gardeners at this time. The use of what some call "Franken Seeds" is restricted to professional growers, who are supposed to follow certain guidelines aimed at keeping the genetically modified genes from 'escaping' into the wild. Cough. Ahem.

Hybrids are the result of a cross between two non-identical plants in the same broad genus, or family. Let's use as an example a wild flower family that contains several different varieties; one is a tall plant with blue flowers and another is shorter, with yellow flowers. These different species initially grow so far apart that local pollinating insects can only reach one kind. So when insects take the pollen from one flower and then visit another flower, it's the same kind of flower, and the seed that is eventually produced by this pollination grows the exact same flower when it germinates the following season. So, for a long time there's a big field of blue and a big field of yellow, miles apart.

Ah, but eventually the plants increase their range enough that insects can reach both color flowers on their pollinating runs. Now, nothing will change that first season; the field of blue flowers will stay blue and the yellow field will stay all yellow. But the next year, when the seeds that were fertilized by pollen from both colors germinates, some of the new plants will be hybrids, with characteristics of both parents—and maybe even a new flower color or two in the mix.

'Accidental hybrids' have been around as long as plants and pollinators. Then humans learned how to do this trick themselves—taking the pollen from one type of say, tomato, and dusting it onto the flowers of a different variety of tomato (or bean, or pepper, or pansy...). Again, nothing changes that first year; the last fruits produced by the hand-pollinated plants will be the same as the first ones. But the seeds inside those fruits will produce a new variety the next season, with characteristics of both parents.

Hybridization is not genetic engineering. In fact, it's a lot like organic agriculture itself, as it involves humans imitating nature to reach a desired end. So hybrids can be organic—as long as they're grown in sustainable soils without the use of chemical inputs. Organic or 'conventional', the law requires that all hybrid varieties be labeled. The variety names on seed packets and plant tags will always have the word 'hybrid' as part of their name or the designation 'F1' after their name.

The Gardens Alive online catalog that prompted Linda's query provides the proof of this assertion. There are 17 varieties listed, all organic. There's an old heirloom tomato leading off, then a couple of nice green beans, then a broccoli that's doubly revealed to be a hybrid, having both the word hybrid and 'F1' after its "Belstar' name. Five more of the 17 varieties listed also have hybrid designations.

And, as Linda notes, you can't save the seeds from hybrid plants. Well, actually you can—and you can plant them, and they will germinate. But they won't produce the same plant as did the hybrid seeds you purchased. Allow your "Belstar" broccoli to flower, let the flowers dry, nudge out the seeds and plant them the following year and you will not get Belstar broccoli. You'll get some other variety—or may be a related plant that's just in the extended broccoli family.

You'll find lots more info about saving your own seeds at this previous Question of the Week on successful seed saving.


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