Creating a hybrid plant is a popular process for commercial growers and intrepid backyard gardeners who are up for a challenge. Hybrid plants are developed to have newer and more desirable qualities. Commercial gardeners use this process to make better plants and most modern plants currently available to home gardeners are also hybrids. But you can also learn how to create your own unique hybrid plants right in your garden through experimentation.
What Is a Hybrid Plant?
A hybrid plant is the result of cross-pollinating two different plant varieties and then collecting and growing the seeds that the plants produce. The plant that grows from that harvested seed is considered a hybrid and is also called an F1 (first generation hybrid offspring).
Pros of Hybrid Plants
There are many advantages to growing a hybrid plant or creating a version of your own. Many of the most popular varieties of garden plants are hybrids because they are easy to grow and have proven to be top performers in the garden. Hybrid plants, including vegetables, tend to have numerous positive qualities, such as:
- Better disease resistance
- Stronger seasonal hardiness
- Vigorous growers
- Larger sizes of plants, flowers, and fruit
- Intense flower and foliage colors
- New petal or leaf colors, shapes, and patterns
- Better tasting fruits and vegetables (if edible)
Cons of Hybrid Plants
There are two big disadvantages to growing hybridized seeds. You can't control what traits from the parent plants will appear in the new plant. Because hybrids are a cross between varieties, the seed produced by hybrids will not grow true to seed. Seedlings grown from a hybrid could exhibit traits of one or both parent plants or be something totally surprising. The second disadvantage is that you won't have much success if you save and try to grow the seeds from the F1 offspring because they tend to lose their vigor.
Types of Hybrids
Most hybrid plants are intentional crosses, but hybridization frequently occurs in nature. Two nearby plants of different species can be cross-pollinated by insects or the wind and the resulting seed simply falls on the soil and grows into a hybrid. Few of the flowers and vegetables we grow today are in their original wild form. In nature, however, hybrids are hit or miss.
Whether the cross occurs naturally or intentionally, do not confuse hybrids with genetically modified plants (GMO), which are created using techniques such as gene cloning. Hybrids are simply two plants that cross-pollinated.
How to Grow Hybrids
To create a hybrid plant, pollen is exchanged between two varieties of the same plant. More specifically, the male part (stamen) of one plant's flower pollinates the female part (the pistil) of another flower. The resulting fruits will have hybridized seeds that you can harvest, plant, and grow.
Even though you can't control the outcome of the hybridization process, you could still be delighted with the new plants you created from harvested seeds. Your hybrid plant may be a delicious new color from the parent plants, for example. Just don't get attached to your creations, because you may never see the exact same plants again. Here are the steps to develop your own hybrids:
- Choose the type of species of flowers you want to work with and select two varieties in the species. It's important to choose two varieties that bloom at about the same time. Avoid choosing varieties in the same species that bloom weeks or months apart.
- Decide which plant you will use as the female (the pistil) and which one you want to take pollen from (the stamen, male parts).
- Remove the stamen (long slender stalk in the center of a flower) from the female plant by pinching it off with your fingers. If you don't do this step, your plant may self-pollinate, but it may be a difficult feat since the flowers are not fully open enough to easily reach in at this stage.
- Cut the male flower from its plant. You may need to use a pair of cuticle scissors to cut off the petals to access the pollen before introducing it to the female.
- Push the anthers (the pollen on top of the stamen) from the male flower into the female flower. Gently rub the two together to hand pollinate. You can also use a cotton swab or paintbrush to transfer pollen from the male flower to the female flower. Discard the male flower.
- Carefully cover the female flower with a plastic bag to prevent natural cross-pollination by birds, insects, or the wind.
- Keep track of your hybridization efforts by tagging the female flowers. Indicate what variety of male flower you used to pollinate the female flowers.
- Harvest, store, and label the resulting seeds from the ripe fruits of the female plant (fruits typically appear after the flowers have died).
- Plant the hybrid seeds in the following year to produce your first hybrid plant.
Common Problems With Hybridization
The process is quite complex in the commercial world. Getting to the desired result can take years of cross-pollination. First-time crosses are grown out the following year and the plants they produce are evaluated. If they meet expectations, the cross will be repeated and the seeds will be marketed the following year. But it can take many years before a hybrid with the desired traits is even created. Sometimes the seed is sterile and does not grow at all, which can also happen in your garden when developing hybrids. If the resulting plants are disappointing, the breeder is back to square one.
Even when the breeder has a winner, the process continues. Seeds for popular commercial hybrids, like Sungold and Early Girl tomatoes, have to be crossed, harvested, and saved every year. These are called F1 hybrids for the first generation because they are the direct product of a cross. The breeder who first creates a hybrid owns the rights to it, which is why they can be more expensive than non-hybrid plants, also called open-pollinated plants. Breeders guard the parentage of their hybrids closely.
Though it is possible, commercial growers can create a stabilized hybrid seed that can become a non-hybrid so that it continually grows true to type. The process involves growing out several generations of seeds, carefully selecting only those that are identical to the parents, and discarding the rest. Commercial hybrids come about after a great deal of work and many attempts are discarded if they do not produce the desired results.
Hybrid Varieties and Saving Seed. Aggie Horticulture.
Vegetable Gardening Basics - Watch Your Garden Grow. University of Illinois Extension.
Why Not Save Hybrid Seeds? University of Missouri Division of Plant Sciences.
Glenn KC, Alsop B, Bell E, et al. Bringing new plant varieties to market: plant breeding and selection practices advance beneficial characteristics while minimizing unintended changes. Crop Science. 2017;57(6):2906-2921.