Heirloom or Hybrid and Does it Matter?
An heirloom by simple definition is something, usually an antique handed down through the generations of a family or ethnic group. At the most basic level, an heirloom variety is a seed or plant offspring passed down for specific characteristics. The characteristics can be valued as a food, medicine or cultural custom.
Many botanists and professional gardeners argue age as a factor to reach heirloom status. The debate is whether it should be 50 or 100 years. While others push for varieties existing before the industrialization of agriculture in the 20th century when a much greater variety of plant food was grown. The only points of agreement are a plant must be open pollinated, not genetically modified, and handed down. Currently, there is not an exact time frame requirement for labeling heirloom varieties.
So, are hybrids a worthwhile inbreed cousin?
A hybrid is achieved when observed distinct genetic characteristics are selected and bred via cross-pollination or grafting creating a “cultivar.” This term distinguishes a wild plant from one that has been cultivated. A cultivar can be identified on the label. First, the Latin botanical name followed by an epithet in quotation marks (a term/name often describing the selected features). Sometimes the label will only state the epithet or named variety in quotation marks, like the photograph below. ‘Bush Early Girl,' is a hybrid tomato cultivated for its early maturity and bush-like growth.
Hybridization of plants by humans has been performed for thousands of years. Hybrids are very different from GMO or genetically modified organisms, where a scientist in a laboratory selects, alters and/or implants genetic information at a molecular level. Unfortunately, GMO’s are classified as cultivars and as yet do not have to be specially labeled. GMO’s are a new technological development in propagation and the long-term effects of rearranging genes in unknown. Thus in the Heirloom or Hybrid debate, GMO varieties are much too recent "to be passed down" and do not qualify for heirloom status.
If you are concerned about the safety of your food, then heirloom varieties are the safest bet and can often be found at farmers' markets or delivered in CSA boxes. For the home garden, seed packets will state the varietal type making homegrown food the best option. Don't be shy, a sunny window or balcony offers sufficient opportunity to grow your own herbs, fruits, and vegetables. Growing your own food makes cooking more fun, flavorful, and healthy.
If you need assistance choosing edible plants for your specific indoor or outdoor site, check out 5 Tips for Selecting Fruit Trees for Your Garden. This article will guide you through 5 simple questions to understanding the conditions of your specific site. Then, you can confidently choose a plant that will succeed. If you have any other questions, shoot us a message to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will be happy to help.