Heirloom Varieties Versus Hybrids

Are older vegetable and flower seeds better, or can modern technology improve varieties?

Many home gardeners have asked this question when deciding whether to buy seeds from past generations of older plants called "heirloom" varieties or "hybrid seed" varieties. Hybrids are two different parent varieties which have been cross-pollinated by plant breeders. Seed companies spend a lot of money developing first generation hybrid seed varieties.

In spite of their enormous popularity right now, Mary Beth Musgrove, Extension horticulture associate with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, says heirloom varieties may not always be the best route to choose.

One advantage to planting heirlooms is they are often open- pollinated varieties. You can save the seeds from year to year, replant from heirloom varieties, and produce the same type of plant, flowers and fruit. However, some hybrid plants may be more productive. Musgrove says hybrids have been developed to produce higher yields and be more resistant to disease. Scientists have also improved the flavor of some hybrid vegetables.

Musgrove says many hybrid versions of tomatoes will grow better in Alabama because they have been genetically bred to adapt to the heat and humidity. Some plants and heirloom varieties grow better in other parts of the country.

"Be careful when purchasing heirloom varieties. Sometimes it's hard to be sure of what you're getting," Musgrove says. "If you deal with a reliable seed source, this should not be a problem."

SOURCE: DR. MARY BETH MUSGROVE, Extension horticulture associate, Alabama Cooperative Extension System (334) 844-5481.