It’s my favorite time of year – the one when you’re planning your vegetable garden! According to the conventional wisdom, “Ancient varieties are the way to go. They’re better tasting than hybrids. Plus, hybrids are sterile. They can’t be reproduced.” True or false? Let’s separate the wheat from the chaff.
The different types of seeds
A stabilized variety (also called fixed or open pollinated) has highly stable features (color, height, flavor) from one descendent to the next. Pollination occurs naturally among flowers of the same variety, which is what we call open pollination. The seeds will produce plants similar to the parents, unless they’ve been contaminated by the pollen of other varieties growing nearby. For example, the Green Zebra tomato, a stabilized variety, could be resown using seeds collected from a Green Zebra without losing its characteristics. You just have to make sure that there are no other tomato varieties nearby with which the Green Zebra could easily have crossbred. This is easily done for tomatoes or green beans, whose flowers self-pollinate easily, but a little more complicated for squash, whose male and female flowers are separate, increasing the chances of hybridization with another squash variety being grown in the vicinity.
How are these varieties created? Creating the Green Zebra began with a selection of tomato varieties possessing the different features that in combination were desired for the new tomato. These tomatoes were then crossbred, selected and self-pollinated repeatedly over a number of generations, with a systematic elimination of the nonconforming tomatoes until all the seeds produced only the ones desired. All this can take an average of 8 to 10 years. One of the consequences of repeated self-pollination is a decrease in the tomato’s genetic variability. In that sense, it could be compared with inbreeding in humans. On the other hand, it’s what makes it possible to retain their features and reproduce them faithfully from one generation to the next. Owing to their genetic deprivation, stabilized varieties often adapt poorly to conditions different from those in which they were selected. An interesting fact, when we hybridize two different varieties, the plants resulting from the crossbreeding are often more vigorous, since they’re genetically richer.
Ancestral varieties are open-pollinated stabilized varieties that were developed previous to the arrival of industrial seed producers, meaning before the years 1940-50. Planters gathered their own seeds, selecting the best from the most productive plants on their soil. These local varieties were refined for their organoleptic qualities, some of them over hundreds of years. They’re flavorful, but also exceptional for their cultural and genetic heritage. Here again the seeds can be collected for reproduction purposes, on condition there are no other varieties close by. They make excellent parents for hybridization. Another interesting fact: in the development of modern varieties for large-scale production, characteristics related to aspects sought by consumers such as preservation, productivity and uniform appearance have been emphasized, sometimes at the expense of taste, diversity of shape and color, and adaptation to the local area.
F1 hybrid varieties result from the crossbreeding of two distinct but genetically pure varieties or lineages. That crossbreeding will result in a hybrid and vigorous first generation of absolutely identical plants that generally are intermediate between the two parents. It will not however be possible to obtain this same variety of F1 hybrid by using seeds collected from these plants. Those seeds will not produce the hoped-for variety, but rather a series of different plants sometimes resembling either one or the other of the lineages, or else intermediate between the two, which will be called F2 hybrids (for 2nd generation). At this stage, great genetic variability can be observed. Which is why collecting seeds from F1 hybrid varieties is not recommended, because they’re not faithfully reproducible. Nevertheless, individuals whose characteristics we like can be selected over several years to create new stabilized varieties.
Hybrids aren’t GMOs
Hybrids mustn’t be confused with genetically modified organisms (GMO), whose genetic heritage is altered via the insertion of genes from another species by genetic engineering techniques. In Québec, our artisan seed producers have no GMO vegetables, nor are there any in organic agriculture, since all organic certification insists that vegetables be free from genetic modifications. However, large crops under conventional management (potatoes, canola, soy) contain genes that have been transformed to resist insects and pesticides. The best-known example is the corn Roundup Ready, modified to resist the herbicide Roundup.
The importance of genetic diversity
Rich genetic diversity is important if plants are to adapt to new environmental conditions and to new diseases. The existence of independently developed varieties in a specific region is a source of important genetic diversity, since each cultivar has its own characteristics and is adapted to different growing conditions. That genetic heritage provides breeders with an indispensable reservoir of genes, allowing for continued improvement of crops and, ultimately, their productivity. The countless ancient varieties being grown around the world abound with diversity and are a treasure to be preserved.
Grab your chance!
In summary, don’t hesitate to collect seeds from your favorite varieties, even F1s. You might make some wonderful discoveries. Possibly you’ve already experimented without knowing it by reseeding a bell pepper from the grocery store?
Do you like the early ripening of one tomato, but prefer the taste of some other one? Cross your ancient varieties and choose the characteristics of the tomato you’ve always dreamed of by reproducing it for a few years to fix its features. Everything’s possible! Your hybrid creations may turn out to be as delicious as your ancient varieties: all you have to do is try them.
Whatever you do, artisan seed producers are hard at work to surprise you with their future hybrid varieties, stabilized or ancient. There’s something for every taste!