Open Pollinated, Heirloom, Cultivar, Hybrid - What does it all mean?

Posted by Hilary Mueller on

We hope you are as excited as we are about our new Live Plants. This has been a long time dream for us and it is so rewarding to finally be offering these edible wonders!

We are passionate about growing food and we love being able to support our customers with more options for your edible landscapes and empower you to grow your self-reliance and your knowledge around growing food and other plants.

Many of you are already fairly experienced gardeners. Whether you consider yourself knowledgeable or not, we’re fairly certain that you know more than you likely give yourself credit for. One of the beautiful things about the world of plants is that there is always more to learn and having a beginner's mind is a positive thing. We are continually humbled and awed by the magic of the natural world.

Even if you’ve been gardening for some time, you may still feel a bit bewildered about some of the language around live plants and even seeds. Look through our 2019 Spring Catalogue and you’ll see words like heirloom, open-pollinated, hybrid and cultivar . What does it all mean, you ask? Well, we’re here to clear up any confusion so that you can proceed confidently in the direction of your gardening dreams.

Variety

Let’s begin with the simplest term. A variety describes a type of plant where the individuals all share the same, or very similar characteristics.


Open-Pollinated

Open Pollinated describes the open - or uninhibited - flow of pollen between individual plants of the same variety. They can be pollinated via the wind, beneficial insects, or by gardeners. Put simply, everyone pollinates everyone else; without abandon! This keeps the gene pool diverse. This diversity of genetics allows for varieties to slowly change and adapt to local climates. It also allows space for interesting traits to appear and for new varieties to be born!

"Open pollinated" generally refers so vegetable and flower varieties while "Species type" is the term used when referring to woody perennials, like trees and shrubs, that produce seed true to type.

So long as different varieties of the same species don’t pollinate each other- like Purple Sprouting Broccoli and Green Sprouting Broccoli -, then the seed will stay true-to-type year after year. Seeds from individuals with undesirable traits, like a head of lettuce that bolts more quickly than the others, are not collected for future planting. This process is called selection.

If you grow open-pollinated varieties too close together - like those two different types of broccoli - the seeds they produce could result in some fun and interesting new traits. If, however, you want to get into saving your own seed and preserving the varieties that you love, it is important to learn about “isolation distances”. Seeds Of Diversity is Canada’s official organization dedicated to seed saving. Their book “How To Save Your Own Seeds” is an excellent resource.

Some open-pollinated varieties are heirloom, and some are modern varieties that have been selected more recently by seed companies, universities or even enthusiastic, backyard gardeners! These modern open pollinated varieties will become the heirloom seeds of tomorrow.

Because all of our seed is open pollinated, you can save seeds from your own veggie garden! It is our strong belief that growers should be able to save their own seed, should they want to, and be able to recreate beloved varieties. This is just not possible with hybrid vegetable & flower varieties. Open pollinated seeds enable communities to be self-reliant and food secure, and not have to rely on corporate plant breeders.

 

Heirloom

Heirloom refers to an older group of varieties that have been selected and passed down through families, cultures, or communities for several generations - sometimes hundreds of years. In the days before the supermarket, people relied on these varieties and selected for traits that would feed them well; higher yields, disease resistance, excellent flavour! Because heirloom varieties come from a time before modern agriculture - and weren’t grown with packaging, shipping and shelf-life in mind- many of them have been nearly lost or forgotten.

You won’t find these vegetables at the grocery store, or even in most gardens - but their flavour is often incomparable! They are usually much more interesting and more beautiful than common commercial varieties. We offer seeds for hundreds of heirloom vegetable and flower varieties, such as Black Krim Tomato, Purple Peacock Pole Bean, or Naples Long Heirloom Squash.



Hybrid

Hybrid is a term that carries some misconceptions. There is a common belief that hybrid = GMO but this is just not the case. In terms of hybrid plant varieties, it simply means that two, or more varieties have been intentionally cross pollinated to create a new variety that embodies certain desirable traits from those parent plants. Cross pollination - hybrids- occurs in nature all the time. Hybrid vegetables are as safe to consume as open pollinated vegetables, you just can’t collect seeds from them. The seeds produced by hybrid plants will not be true-to-type, meaning you will have to repurchase them every year. Because the trait selection happens through cross pollination, the traits are not stable and established. Hybrid varieties can be stabilized through open pollination and trait selection, but this takes many seasons.

All of our seed comes from stable, open pollinated varieties! 

There are many perennial plants that people grow that are easier to propagate by means other than collecting and planting seeds. Raspberries, through suckers. Grapes & Kiwis, through vines forming new roots. Fruit trees, through cuttings and grafting. When it comes to woody perennials, hybrid varieties are easy to replicate in your own backyard. These methods of propagation have been used for thousands of years!

Some hybrid plants have been cultivated through years of effort, like the Romance Series of Bush Cherries. Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan have spent the past 50 years developing a cherry that can be grown in most parts of Canada, zones 2-7 (pretty amazing!). These cherries are trademarked hybrids and the research team earns a royalty on each plant sold.Their efforts and determination have made fresh, homegrown cherries possible for most Canadians.


Cultivar

Cultivar stands for cultivated variety and always refers to a perennial plant, not a vegetable. Cultivar can refer to open pollinated perennials -like Antonovka Apple - that can reproduce true from seed, or hybrids - like Boreal Blizzard and Boreal Beast Haskap Berries - that are reproduced via cuttings.

A cultivar is developed by crossing different plants with desirable qualities; growing seedlings from those plants and then selecting the ones that are most exceptional. Those fabulous plants become the mother plants and are then reproduced by cuttings, grafting, etc.

Many of the interesting live plant cultivars that we sell cannot reproduce well from seed, but can be reproduced by the home gardener through cuttings & suckers.


Now you know!

We hope this library entry has giving you some clarity. Growing your our food is empowering, but words are empowering too! Now you’ve got some horticultural nomenclature in your arsenal!

Plants of a variety are so closely related that they share the same, distinct traits. Open pollinated varieties are created through free pollination and then trait selection. Heirlooms are open pollinated varieties that have been around for many years. Hybrid varieties come from cross pollinating for certain traits. Those traits won’t be clear in the next generation of plant, making seed saving from hybrids a long, drawn out process. Perennial Hybrids however, can be reproduced easily at home by rooting cuttings or grafting. Many woody perennials spread readily by sending up suckers that you can replant. Cultivar is an abbreviation for cultivated variety. Cultivar always refers to a perennial plant and it simply means that a variety has a name and stable traits. A cultivar can be open pollinated or a hybrid.

Let’s keep this discussion going! Please don’t hesitate to leave a question or comment. It is our pleasure to support you along your gardening journey.

Until next time.

May the garden feed you well!


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  • Hello,
    I’ve been gardening for over 20 years and didn’t realize exactly what cultivar meant!
    Thank you for the info. We never stop learning : )

    Caroline on

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