Q: What’s the difference between hybrid, heirloom, vintage, and heritage plants? I see these terms used in gardening catalogs and articles, but I have no idea what they mean.

A: Coming across these terms can be confusing to anyone. They are used in describing all types of plants, but you’ve probably noticed them most often used when referring to vegetable varieties. Let’s see if we can provide some clear definitions.

Hybrid Varieties
A hybrid plant is achieved by means of controlled pollination. Producing hybrid seed is more time consuming and expensive because the plants must be hand pollinated. Often, you’ll see the term ‘F1 hybrids’ meaning the plants has not cross pollinated in the wild.

Most hybridized plants require the cross breeding of carefully chosen parent plants. The resulting seeds will produce plants with very specific characteristics that carry a combination of traits from the parent plants. This is how it’s done: breeders select specific male and female parent plants based on desirable traits like color, size, repeat blooms, disease resistance, etc. The female plants have their pollen bearing anthers removed and receive pollen from those plants selected as their partners.

The resulting offspring will have identifiable genetic characteristics from both parents. It’s not always easy. Breeders may work for years to find the right combination of desirable traits they are looking for in a plant. Before a variety reaches the market, seed companies perform their own trials. Sometimes they fail. For example, many seed companies have been working to produce a pure white marigold. As of this writing ‘pure white’ is still a dream.

There are many advantages to an F1 Hybrid. The hybrid plant may possess wider adaptability to environmental stress and have extra vitality; this is called hybrid vigor. Some other benefits may be earlier flowers, higher yields, and as mentioned above, improved disease resistance. Hybrid plants are very consistent from plant to plant and year to year.

The main disadvantage is that hybrid seeds cannot be saved as they will not produce the same plant. Most hybrid varieties are not self sustaining. The offspring usually show an unpredictable mixture of characteristics and may lose all the advantageous characteristics that made it a hybrid.

Any plant that is a hybrid is supposed to have the word “hybrid” in its name, but this is sometimes overlooked in catalog listings.

Burpee’s Big Boy Tomatoe and Ruby Queen hybrid corn are two examples of popular hybrids.

burpee_bigboy.pngBurpee Big Boy Tomato
rubyqueencorn.pngRuby Queen Corn

Heirloom Varieties
In comparison, heirloom plants are open-pollinated and are usually grown in fields where they self and cross-pollinate. The term open-pollinated or standard is used interchangeably to refer to heirloom plants. These plants are varieties that have stable traits from one generation to the next. They are fairly similar to each other but not as uniform as hybrids.

Wind and insects carry the pollen from one plant to another. Many gardeners will encourage pollinators such as bees to their garden in order to help their heirloom variety plants thrive. In the nursery, plants that cross-pollinate are isolated from other plants of different varieties in order to produce seed that is considered true to type. Genetic ‘drift’ can occur over time and if the plant deviates far from the accepted standard they are removed from commercial nursery fields.
Beans, lettuce, peas and tomatoes are self-pollinating. They don’t need to be isolated from other varieties and are easier to continue from year to year.

The advantage of heirloom, or open pollinated, plants is that the home gardener can continue growing these plants by carefully saving the seeds. This is where the terms heritage and vintage come to play. Generations of growers within a family or community have passed down seeds of their favorite heirloom plants. Some nurseries have incorporated the word ‘vintage’ into their name when they mean heirloom. A heritage plant can be an open pollinated plant that has been successfully grown for many years.

Examples of heirloom vegetables are Scarlet Nantes Carrot and Black Beauty Eggplant.

scarletnantes.pngScarlet Nantes Carrot
blackbeautyeggplant.pngBlack Beauty Eggplant

These plants remain popular even though they don’t have the characteristics of hybrids. They’re reliable growers and some people feel heirloom plants taste better than hybrids. However, taste is subjective. You can be the judge by growing your own combination of hybrids and heirloom plants. Compare the characteristics of each variety with the qualities you want in a plant. After a few seasons you’ll be able to select the varieties that are best for your situation.

Contributed by Eileen Tully, Certified Colorado Gardener
Photos courtesy of Burpee Seed Company and Seeds of Change