The terms “hybrid” and “open pollinated” are bandied about by gardeners as if everyone knew what they meant. In fact, people seem to be passionate about the merits of one or the other when they are talking. While I make no attempt to solve the debate, I will try to explain the differences between hybrid and open pollinated plants.
Open pollinated plants are plants that breed with themselves with the help of anatomy, insects, bats, and birds. While “heirloom” and “open pollinated” are often used as if they are synonymous, they are not. New open pollinated plants are being developed every day.
The major difference between hybrid and open pollinated plants is if you save the seed from open pollinated plants, you can plant it and expect to get the same kind of plant as the parent plant. No surprises, just a new plant exactly like the old plant.
Rarely in nature, plants cross pollinate with a close relative and form a hybrid. However, those plants are usually sterile, like a mule. Sometimes, however, the hybrid grows and a new variety is formed. If the plant that results can compete better than its parents, it continues to grow. Otherwise, it is bred out of the line.
Hybrid plants that are sold in nurseries or as seeds are formed the same way, except they get help from humans. Two closely related plants are deliberately bred together and their seeds saved or the plant propagated by cuttings.
Many vegetable plants are grown this way. Hybrids are usually grown each year, yielding F1 hybrids. No effort is made to continue the line beyond F1.
The advocates for hybrids say that crossing two healthy plants that complement one another yields a better plant. In many cases, they are correct. Most of the plants we grow now are hybrids and they make it possible to produce more food on less land than anytime in history. In addition, new varieties can be developed to address a specific problem.
Hybrids are expensive to make, however. The parents must be grown in a sealed building where wind and insects cannot reach them to pollinate them. Each plant must be pollinated by hand. Sometimes the results are better than the parents and the hybrid is produced for sale. Sometimes, however, the hybrids are no better or worse than the parents and the line is abandoned. In addition, a company can patent a hybrid, meaning they can sell it at a premium.
If a hybrid produces seed, and you save it, the seed will not produce the exact same plant as the parents. It will favor one or more of its parents. That means new seed must be bought every year. In addition, the pollen from a hybrid can spread to its open pollinated neighbors and contaminate them as well.