Do you have difficulty understanding the difference between heirloom and hybrid plants? When shopping for plants at your local garden center, you may notice some are marked ‘heirloom,” while others are labeled “hybrid.” Have you ever wondered what these terms mean – or which is better for you?

Do they even matter?

Understanding the difference between heirloom and hybrid plants - what they are, and what matters

These terms seem to create a lot of confusion among novice and experienced gardeners alike. There are those who swear that heirlooms are the only way to go because they think hybrids plants are inferior. On the other hand, hybrid fans are convinced they are a better all around choice, because they tend to be more vigorous producers and are less susceptible to disease and pests.

In reality, there may be room in every garden for both types of plants. To better understand the distinction between heirloom and hybrid plant varieties, it helps to look at how they came to be.

Are you ready for a quick crash course in heirlooms and hybrids? Keep reading to learn about open-pollination and how it compares to the careful manipulation of hybrid breeding.

Open Pollination vs Careful Manipulation

Open-pollination (a term you really need to understand) is a form of plant reproduction which occurs in one of two ways, and it points to the difference between heirloom and hybrid plants:

1.    Cross-pollination (in the context of open-pollination) occurs when two varieties of the same plant species reproduce due to natural pollinators, such as wind, birds or insects.

2.    Self-pollination occurs when a plant possesses both male and female parts and can reproduce by itself. Self-pollinating plants, such as tomatoes, breed true to the parent plant and do not require isolation to avoid contamination from other varieties

The term “heirloom” refers to older, well-established varieties of open-pollinated plants. These plants have developed stable genetic characteristics over time. Often, classic heirloom varieties evoke a sense of nostalgia because they were often found in the gardens of older generations. In fact, heirloom seeds can become an important part of a family’s history as they are passed down from one generation to the next.

Hybrid plants, on the other hand, are the result of highly controlled cross-pollination between different varieties of the same species of plants. Although cross-pollination can and does occur in nature, the results are too random to be reproduced and marketed on a mass scale. Therefore, the hybrids you see in stores are not open-pollinated like heirloom varieties.

In order to sell a hybrid variety commercially, its breeding must be carefully monitored in order to ensure the same characteristics are present across all plants sold under that name.

Unfortunately, this high level of human involvement in their development causes many to believe hybrid plant varieties are also “genetically modified.” Want to know about Hybrid Plants and Genetic Modification? Keep reading.

Are Hybrid Plants Genetically Modified?


Hybrid plants and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are NOT the same thing.

This is a really common confusion and I hear it from people who really should know better, so don’t worry if it confuses you, too.

Once again, the difference between the two goes back to how they are created.

What are hybrids? Hybrids are the result of highly controlled cross-pollination between two varieties of the same plant species.

The resulting progeny will contain characteristics from each parent plant, just like if the two had crossed in nature. In fact, the process duplicates what nature does, except under a very controlled environment. Instead of relying on bees to pollinate, for example, plant breeders might use delicate brushes to remove pollen from one desired parent plant to the other.

GMOs are the result of scientific manipulation at the cellular level.

See the difference?

In a lab environment, plant cells are altered through the addition of outside substances like pesticides or DNA from other organisms. So-called ‘negative’ genes may also be removed in this process. The end result is a new organism that wouldn’t occur in nature without this type of manipulation.

To make it very simple and clear – if you are willing to do the work, you can certainly becoming a plant breeder and create your own hybrids. In fact, farmers have traditionally been the ones who had done just that. You cannot, however, create GMOs in your backyard.

There is a lot of concern and discussion surrounding the long-term safety of GMOs because they have been introduced into the food supply without any long-term studies to confirm their safety. Today, there is a lot of concern that GMOs may be linked to cancer and many other health problems.

As consumers become more aware of the presence of these substances in commercially processed foods, many are choosing to adopt an organic, whole food diet.

In an effort to avoid GMOs, some are also avoiding hybrid plants unnecessarily. So the final question is — which one is better? Keep reading as we answer that question!

Which is Better: Heirlooms or Hybrids?

There is no right or wrong answer to that question. I definitely grow both.

Heirlooms are often treasured for their delicious flavor, while many hybrids are prized for their vigor, high yields and superior disease resistance.

Hybrids can also be seedless, like English cucumbers, and many of them are designed specifically for greenhouse growing, which allows gardeners to extend their season.

The biggest difference between the two is this:

Heirloom varieties grow true from seeds.

You can save and use their seeds year after year and get uniform results. Hybrids do not offer that type of genetic stability. Plants grown from the seeds of hybrid plants are unlikely to look or perform like the plant from which the seeds were collected.

So, if you like to collect and grow your garden from seeds, or if you are concerned about the future of the seed industry, heirlooms are the best choice. Take the time now to grow out your heirloom plants and learn how to save the seeds.

In the meantime (or if that doesn’t matter to you), hybrids provide a wide variety of safe – and non-GMO – options. Even if you grow some of your garden from heirloom varieties, you can still fill in the gaps with highly productive hybrids. Now that you understand the difference between heirloom and hybrid plants, you can see that they both have valid uses.

Just Plain Living