LEE REICH / AP
This 2008 photo shows Golden Bantam Sweet Corn. These days, hybrids are either panned or praised in the world of gardening. Not that hybrids are such oddities. A hybrid is merely the offspring of two parents that are not genetically the same. The first artificial hybrids – they were corn – hit the market in the 1930s and have been big hits ever since.
These days, hybrids are either panned or praised in the world of gardening. Not that hybrids are such oddities. A hybrid is merely the offspring of two parents that are not genetically the same.
You and I are hybrids, as are many wild and cultivated plants soon to be popping up along roadsides and in gardens. In the case of plants, hybrid offspring, each genetically different from their parents, might be better able to tolerate colder temperatures, grow in less fertile soil, or make larger and tastier fruits than their parents. Or not –it's the luck of the draw.
HUMAN HELP FOR MOTHER NATURE?
But why leave such marriages to chance? The mule is a hardy and useful animal, more so than either of its parents, but not one designed by Mother Nature. A human has to bring that horse and donkey together. To guarantee that a hybrid vegetable or flower is imbued with selected traits, those traits must first be isolated by inbreeding the prospective parents for many generations.
Ironically, the effect of this artificial hybridization is opposite to that of natural hybridization. Natural hybridization promotes genetic diversity and better general adaptation of plant populations to existing or new conditions. Artificial hybridization narrows the genetic playing field, yielding homogeneous populations superior only in selected traits.
The first artificial hybrids – they were corn –hit the market in the 1930s and have been big hits ever since. And no wonder! Those fields of hybrid corn sometimes yielded twice as much as old-fashioned corn, with ears that ripened more uniformly.
Then, uh-oh, a black cloud moved in over that corn field. By narrowing the genetic palette, some unaccounted-for pest could move in, wiping out all the plants. And that's just what happened when Southern corn blight devastated the commercial corn crop in 1970. A threat of some pest run amok can similarly haunt large plantings of artificial hybrids of any vegetable or flower.
That uniformity could have additional drawbacks for us backyard gardeners. At harvest time, for example. I'd rather pick a few ears a day for a week or two than have to deal with four dozen ears of corn ripening all at once. Or a dozen heads of broccoli. And while rubberstamp uniformity is a plus in a very formal flower garden, such a trait could be boring in any other flower garden.
The alternatives to artificial hybrids are open-pollinated, or non-hybrid, vegetables and flowers. These varieties generally, but not always, yield less then artificial hybrids. Count among open-pollinated varieties some of the finest-tasting vegetables in the garden: Early Jersey Wakefield cabbage, Brandywine tomato, Sweet Italia pepper, Golden Bantam corn.
Because hybrids yield more and do not "come true" from seed, so must be purchased, seed companies offer fewer and fewer varieties of open-pollinated varieties each year.
Fortunately, you and I can collect seed from open-pollinated varieties for planting in subsequent years. That's how each summer I get to eat Belgian Giant tomatoes, an utterly delectable variety that I originally got from a nursery in Maryland back in 1979. Every year I save seed for replanting.
"The Garden Seed Inventory" by Kent Whealy (Seed Savers Exchange, 2005) lists sources for open-pollinated vegetable seeds, and "Seed to Seed" by Suzanne Ashworth and Kent Whealy (Seed Savers Exchange, 2002) and "Saving Seeds" by Marc Rogers (Storey Publishing, 1991) tell how to save your own vegetable seeds.