ABC Wednesday 5: O is for...

... Open Pollinated Seed Varieties

Crumbs - what a mouthful. Do bear with me on this, as I'm trying to make things clear for myself as well as for you. If I'm not succeeding, let me know in the Comments!

This one's also for Karen because she asked which seeds I'd grabbed in the swap at the bloggers get together in Oxford on Saturday. Let's get the non-seed items out of the way first shall we? Ben from Real Seeds gave me a couple of blight resistant Will potatoes he's been growing. From garlic guru Patrick I had a very healthy looking head of Music and who could resist a couple of Tristan's (who has an organic market garden) enormous cloves of elephant garlic? Emma didn't either!

Any saved seed, like the packets you see here from Ben (tomato Tomatito de jalapa and Morton's secret mix of very different lettuces) and Vicki from the Heritage Seed Library (Bean Cherokee Trail of Tears, Leek Colossal and Beetroot Long Blood Red) were from what's called open pollinated varieties. This means they're seeds from plants which have been pollinated in the field by e.g. bees or wind. There are two basic types of open pollinated crops viz:

Plants such as beans, peas, lettuce and tomatoes are self-pollinating i.e. the female flowers are fertilised via pollen from the male flowers on the same plant. As long as the parent variety is stable - it's been produced over many generations of plants - the seeds when grown will produce plants pretty much the same as the parent plant. This is just what most of us want because we like to know what we're getting.

Other plants such as squash, corn, carrots, brassicas and beets are cross-pollinating i.e. the pollen from one plant is used to fertilise the flower of another. This means that a variety must be kept in relative isolation from others of the same crop if the seed produced from the parent plants is to come true rather than produce a hybrid between the two varieties. This hybrid seed is rather unpredictable as it takes on a mixture of characteristics from each parent and it may be nowhere near as good as its parents if and when the seed's grown.

Open pollination is often mentioned at the same time as Heritage or Heirloom varieties. However, these terms aren't mutually inclusive. An open pollinated variety isn't necessarily an heirloom one, for instance the salad and tomato seeds shown in the picture are relatively new varieties. The Heritage Seed Library (HSL) is all about preserving the relatively old seed varieties (usually bred pre-1951), many of which have been dropped from the more popular seed catalogues, especially since the EU rules came into force regarding seed registration. This made it very expensive for a company to retain lots of varieties in one catalogue.

The HSL is preserving as many of these 'dropped' varieties (or 'lines') as possible because they're often excellent crops in their own right (often beating the more commercial varieties hands down in blind taste tests) and who knows when they might be useful for future plant breeding initiatives? HSL doesn't have enough space to grow enough seed for its members, so it relies on Seed Guardians to help out by saving seed to send back to Ryton. This would be extremely difficult for them to do if the varieties weren't open pollinated ones.

For anyone like me wanting to start to save their own seeds - as Ben in particular actively encourages - then the self-pollinating crops are the easiest place to start. Patrick has also started a bloggers' seed saving network - if you're interested in contributing to this, then do have a look here. Those of you living over the pond may also like to have a look at joining The Seed Savers Exchange.

Note that Patrick only accepts open pollinated, stable varieties, so if you've seed saved from commercial F1 varieties it isn't welcome. This is because the seed usually isn't viable and any plants will have (often wildly) different characteristics which will probably crop poorly. Also the network is aiming to get away from the hold exerted by seed companies. For example, as these F1 varieties (i.e. the first generation of seed produced from hybridisation) are unstable, the seed company must keep breeding from the parent varieties in order to keep the seed supply going. Have a look at Ben's website and Patrick's blog if you wish to know more about this issue, they're much better at explaining these things.

Phew - I've given you loads of relatively complicated stuff today! However, if you'd like to know more about open pollination or hybridisation, then this well written article I've found from the National Gardening Association has a lot more information.

For more articles bought to you by the letter O, do hop on over to the ABC Wednesday Blog.


  1. That's good info to know...and a clever O posting! gail

  2. That was a fascinating read - I'd long wondered about the difference in pollination types and you've cleared it up beautifully for me. Thanks for that :)

  3. Now that was just fascinating and exactly what I needed to clarify the difference! thanks a lot VP.

  4. i think that you are very clear! a most informative post.

  5. Thanks for a most interesting and informative post!
    I try not to buy any F1 seeds, but do look out for organically sourced ones. xx

  6. I try not to buy any F1 seeds either - have recently found this site, and though I haven't ordered anything from them yet I love their ethos. I'm sure you already know about them, VP, but thought I'd mention them in case anyone else reading this hasn't found them yet!

  7. I enjoyed your post VP. I must admit that I am a bit hazy about the subject of seed saving. I have saved seeds from my 'Cobra' climbing French beans - no other French beans about on my plot at the time, but I am still not sure whether these seeds will come true or not.

  8. Hi everyone, thanks for the positive feedback :)

    Juliet - extra information and links are always welcome :)

    Anna - beans are self-pollinators, so they should come true to type. However, beans are particularly sensitive to environmental stress which can make the seeds look quite a lot different. For example, I have some purely red seeds in my saved firetongue bean seeds this year. Cherokee Trail of Tears seeds are usually black, but are notorious for having white offspring! However, if these seeds are planted, you'll still get a good crop and the next lot of saved seeds will go back to looking as they should!

  9. Fascinating VP - thanks for the explanation and the links.

    The garlic "Music' looks good. I am thinking of growing some elephant garlic in the flower garden this year - as it is very attractive.

  10. You know, VP, I was just thinking the other day that I really do like your blog. Makes me smile to cross the pond every few days and have a look-see at your veg plot doings.

    Oh, and thanks for clearing up all that open-pollination hoo-ha.

    Carry on. ;-)

  11. I'm totally non-horticulturally minded, but my wife would likely have a better appreciation.

  12. Karen - NAH loves elephant garlic too because there's just one fat clove has needs to peel when he makes our weekly curry :)

    Susan - that's such a nice thing to say. I'm dead chuffed :D

    ROG - well. the aim is to get you less horticulturally challenged ;)


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