What is an Open Pollinated Garden Plant?

Hollyhock (Alcea rosea)
Old-fashioned flowers, like hollyhocks, aren't just sentimental, they're practical. They are open pollinated, so you can save seeds to replant next season. Photo: © Marie Iannotti

What does Open Pollinated Mean

 

Open pollinated plants are plants that can cross pollinate with other plants of the same variety and the seed they produce, when planted, will grow into virtually identical plants as the parent plants. This is considered growing true to seed or true to type. For example, if a ‘Black Krim’ tomato cross pollinates with another ‘Black Krim’ tomato plant, the seeds from the tomato that results from this pollination will have seeds that will grow into a ‘Black Krim’ plant.

You will often see open pollinated abbreviated as OP, especially on seed packets.

Open pollinated plants may be the original species of a type of plant or they could be hybrids that have been stabilized over the years, like ‘Kentucky Wonder’ beans. Breeders start by crossing 2 different varieties and then plant the seeds from the resulting hybrid. They keep on planting successive generations of that first hybrid and selecting the plants that are identical to the one they want to cultivate while discarding any that deviate in anyway. They do this over and over, for several generations of seed, until all the seeds collected grow into uniform plants.

 

What does Open Pollinated Mean to the Gardener?

Open pollinated plants are often cross pollinated by non-similar varieties and species, either intentionally or by nature. When that happens, the resulting seed will be a hybrid. When you plant that seed, you will probably get plants with a range of qualities.
Some will have traits similar to one or both of the parent plants and some will be total surprises. For example, hot peppers planted near sweet peppers will cross pollinate and give you seeds that may grow into plants that bear small, hot peppers, large hot peppers, small sweet peppers, or large sweet peppers.
You never know.

 

There’s nothing wrong with this. This is how new plants are bred and it happens in nature all the time. It just means you won’t get plants that grow true to seed.

Are Open Pollinated Plants Better than Hybrids?

There’s not a lot of difference apparent  when you are growing open pollinated plants rather than hybrids. You can’t tell just by looking at them. There are some instances when hybrid seeds have a growing advantage, such as when they have been bred for disease resistance, heat tolerance, or bigger or more prolific flowers.

There is also a phenomenon called hybrid vigor which is especially pronounced in corn seed. The hybrid varieties tend to have an extra boost of energy that somehow allows them to produce more ears.

 

Hybrids have a few advantages, too. They tend to be either very flavorful vegetables or beautiful flowers, because the only reason they have lasted so many years is because someone chose to save their seed and regrow it. With all the options out there, no one would do that if they didn’t think the plants were terrific.

Open pollinated plants that are grown for more than 50 years are considered heirlooms.

There is also a great deal more variety to choose from in open pollinated seed. And there are regional varieties that are suited to different growing conditions, while hybrid seed is usually developed to be one size fits all and often is developed for the commercial grower, not the home gardener.

So both types of seed have their pluses. Neither is better. It all depends on what you are looking for.

Only Open Pollinated Seed can be Reliably Saved

One the biggest advantages of open pollinated seed is that the home gardener can save seed to grow again next year. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Saving seed requires more than simply collecting the seed at the end of the season because, as was mentioned above, open pollinated plants can cross pollinate with other dissimilar varieties and produce seed that is no longer the open pollinated variety.

To become adept at saving seed you have to read up on which plants will cross pollinate with what other plants and how far the pollen will travel. Then you can grow them at a sufficient distance from one another so that the pollen of one never reaches the pollen of another. Another option is to choose plants that bloom at different times, so they aren’t pollinating at the same time. Seed saving is a fascinating topic that is too large to be covered here, other than to say that only open pollinated seed will grow true to type.