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Identifying Heirlooms, Hybrids, and GMOs

By Carol Davis

Ever wonder about the difference between a hybrid and heirloom plant? Or what, exactly, a GMO is?

If you’re new to gardening, these might be a bit confusing, so here’s a simple reference:


Heirloom vegetables are old-time varieties that usually date back more than 50 years. Heirlooms are open-pollinated, which means they are pollinated naturally by insects, birds, and the wind. This also means that seeds saved from heirloom vegetables will produce plants that are like the plant from which they came, unlike hybrid seeds. Heirloom plants are not as predictable as hybrids regarding yield and uniformity, but heirloom enthusiasts prefer them for their flavor and the idea of preserving an old-time vegetable’s heritage. Well-known heirlooms include the Cherokee Purple tomato, California Wonder pepper, and Moon and Stars watermelon.


Hybrids are created when different varieties of the same species are cross-pollinated to maximize their best qualities, such as yield, size, uniformity, taste, and disease resistance. Because hybrids seeds come from a plant with two parents of different varieties, they’re not likely to produce a plant with the same qualities. Instead, the second generation most likely will resemble one of the plants that created hybrid. Those plants tend to not produce as well, so you have to buy new seed each year, rather than saving them. Some of the most popular hybrids include Silver Queen corn, Saticoy cantaloupe, and Sweet Slice cucumbers.


You won’t find GMO — genetically modified organism — seeds in the seed packets you buy for your garden. Rather, they have been developed in commodity crops for large, commercial farming operations that produce corn, sugar beets, and soy. GMOs are created with highly complex technology, such as gene splicing, in laboratories, and are not plants that would emerge naturally.