Hybrid Seeds

By Jeff Rugg

February 23, 2016 5 min read

Q: I see that some seeds in my vegetable catalogs are listed as F1 hybrids. They are usually more expensive than other seeds and other hybrids. Is it worth the money to get F1 hybrids? Is there an F2 or F3 hybrid?

A: It might be worth the money if the desired traits you need in that kind of plant are why the F1 hybrid was created. It is time for a quick botany lesson.

An open pollinated plant has seeds produced from parents that are of the same species. The resulting offspring may or may not be similar to the parents. In some plants that are self-fertile, like tomatoes, only one plant is needed and the offspring do appear to be like the parent. Beans, lettuce, peas, and tomatoes are self-pollinating so they are easier to continue year to year without having to isolate them from other varieties. Over the generations, the offspring of many open pollinated plants are pretty consistently similar.

If you have two plants that are different, such as one red flower and the other white, you can cross them to get a whole bunch of offspring. Some of them will have red flowers, some white and maybe some will have pink, striped or spotted flowers. All of the new offspring are hybrids, but only a few could be useful to continue growing. Since the genetics are not easy, the offspring of the hybrid may not continue that new characteristic.

In some cases, the two parents are very different, but when crossed, some of their offspring exhibit markedly increased growth. This is called hybrid vigor and it can result in useful offspring. Because the parents were so different, the offspring are often sterile. Mules exhibit this hybrid vigor and are the usually sterile offspring of horses and donkeys.

To help guarantee a good outcome in the crossing of plants, it is best to have great parents. For example, if plant breeders see two plants that each have a good characteristic that the other plant doesn't have, they could try to cross them. The resulting offspring may not consistently have the combined characteristics. So, the breeders take the best of each parent and cross them among themselves. To ensure the proper pollen gets to the right flower, all of the crossing is done by hand.

After several generations, the parents are grown into a pure line. The two pure lines are now crossed, and if everything works, an F1 hybrid with hybrid vigor and the best characteristics of both parents will be the result.

The pure lines can take many years to create and they may be the result of previous crossings that try to build in desirable characteristics. Pure lines and F1 hybrids are expensive to produce. Every year that the F1 hybrid seeds are available, both parents had to be available the year before to create the F1 seeds. Since no self-fertilization is allowed, all of the pure lines and F1 hybrid seeds have to be produced with hand pollination.

Since the breeders are the only ones with the right parents, they are the only ones who can produce the right seeds. No one else can sneak in and get some of the financial reward as they could with open pollinated plants. Even with all this work, not every F1 hybrid is great. The plants are tested at trial gardens such as the All-America Selections program gardens, where some will fail.

Vegetable F1 hybrids are often bred to have the highest yields, most uniformity, best disease resistance, need the least water and produce as early as possible. So, paying a little more per seed can have a high reward of better produce.

The vegetable gardener can collect the seeds of an open pollinated plant and grow more of the same the next year. The seeds of hybrids and F1 hybrids will not produce the same plants the next year. Crossing a pair of F1 hybrids will get an F2 generation, but the offspring are not guaranteed to be good.

Gardeners can choose hybrids or open pollinated varieties, or a combination of both types for the garden. Compare the characteristics of each variety with the qualities you want. Select varieties that are best for your garden.

Jeff Ruggs's weekly column, "A Greener View," can be found at creators.com.

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