Heirloom, Open-Pollinated, or Hybrid... What's the Difference?


very time we sow, we are not only making gustatory or aesthetic choices, but also serious political and environmental decisions. That’s dozens of big decisions in every salad bowl! But, with some basic knowledge of plant breeding, it’s not hard to stay informed and decide which sort of seeds line up with your personal gardening values. Below are three important seedy vocabulary terms–Open-Pollinated, Heirloom, and Hybrid–to help every gardener navigate the incredible diversity of seed choices we face each season.

Here at the Hudson Valley Seed Co, we choose to fill our catalog exclusively with open-pollinated varieties, because the seeds we grow help to shape the world we live in.

Our values as a seed company center around ensuring that plants and people can continue to evolve together. We don’t believe that seeds or plant genetics can or should be owned by corporations. We choose the best open-pollinated (OP) varieties because anyone can save seeds from these varieties and know that the next seeds will grow “true to type.” You’ll get the same great flavor, color, or disease resistance, year after year. Open-pollinated plants tend to have variation within a plant population. The benefit to this diversity bubble is that gardeners and farmers can continue to make their own selections for taste, shapes, colors, and new regional adaptations that are important to them. That’s true garden independence and honors generations of seed savers.

Some OP varieties cross-pollinate, usually through wind or insects, and thus have isolation requirements to keep varieties within the same species true to type. For example, two squash varieties planted adjacent to one another will cross and the next generation from their seeds may express a mix of traits from both varieties. Other species are self-pollinators, which means pollen-bearing and fruit-bearing parts of the plant are contained within one flower. Since they pollinate themselves, isolation is of little or no concern.

Hank's X-tra Special Baking Bean

Hank's X-tra Special Baking Bean (photo by Jeff Mertz)


Heirlooms are a subset of OP seeds: all heirlooms are open-pollinated, however not all open-pollinated varieties are heirlooms. It’s a term coined in the 1970s and popularized in the 90s as a way of showing that some open-pollinated seeds are cherished and passed down from generation to generation the way a family carpet or painting might be. An heirloom seed or variety (not just tomatoes!) is one that has been grown within a family or community or region for a period of many generations. They "grow true," meaning that gardeners can continue to save seed from the variety and grow plants with consistent characteristics year after year.

Central to this discussion is the question: "How old is old enough to qualify as an heirloom?" We consider a variety that has been grown for 50-100 years an heirloom. Some of these are family heirlooms–such as Hank's X-tra Special Baking Bean and Upstate Oxheart Tomato–which were donated to us by individuals. Others are commercial heirlooms, seeds that have been commercially available for at least 50 years, though we may not know the seed’s story before it was offered in a seed catalog. Some, like Jenny Lind Melons, are regional heirlooms, grown by many gardeners throughout a region for many years.

Heirlooms carry not only family and cultural history, but genetic diversity: often selected for the combination of sensory pleasures like tastes, looks, fragrance, and environmental resilience: disease, pest, frost, or heat resistance, for example.

Bridge to Paris Pepper

Bridge to Paris Pepper–not a hybrid.


Hybrids are the offspring of a controlled cross between two genetically different parent plants of the same species resulting in a first generation plant (F1) with specific characteristics of both parents. Hybrids were originally developed for mono-crop and industrial farming purposes like shipability, mechanical harvesting, high yield (requiring high chemical inputs), uniformity, and shelf life. More recent hybrids are released by universities and corporations to address specific market needs like resistance to disease, uniformity, and marketability. Not all seed catalogs tell you which varieties are hybrids. One clue is if it says F1, you know it's a hybrid.

We don’t sell any hybrid seeds. That’s because we want you to be able to save seeds from year to year, and you can’t do that with a hybrid. Hybrid-saved seeds will grow again, but will not grow “true to type” and will be unpredictable in the second generation.

We do, however, have some contemporary heirlooms whose best qualities have been untangled from their hybrid fore-bearers. Bridge to Paris peppers are one example; selected over successive seasons out of hybrid La Paris, this variety's deliciousness, yield, and popularity has only improved.

Hybrids may also carry hidden consequences that don’t align with our seed beliefs. In particular, the way hybrids are released, controlled, and licensed has led to patenting of traits and uses. These patents and licenses are meant to protect the investment that corporations and institutions put into creating the variety, but they also restrict our ability to continue to be in relationship with seeds. We aspire to preserve the diversity within heirloom varieties, while increasing biodiversity and agrobiodiversity for future generations.

We hope this helps illuminate some of the decisions we make before adding new varieties to our catalog. There’s a big compost heap of thought, research, trialing, and story-finding that nourishes every seed story we add to our catalog. Thanks for growing with the Hudson Valley Seed Co!