Heirloom? Open Pollinated? Patented? A Glossary Of Terms
Heirloom? Open Pollinated? Patented? A Glossary Of Terms
Baker Creek offers only heirloom and open-pollinated varieties. They’re distinctly different from commercial hybrids or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). But what does this all mean?
What Is An Open-Pollinated Variety?
“Open pollinated” is a botanical term that tells us that the variety is stable and the seeds will “breed true.” These seeds have an established set of genetic traits, like taste, color and shape, that will remain the same when its seeds are saved and planted the following season. For example, the seeds of an Amish Paste tomato, which is an open-pollinated variety, will express the same characteristics each year, provided that no accidental cross pollination occurs. This term lets us know that the seeds were bred naturally by wind, insects, animals or human hands in a minimally invasive way (like passing pollen between two varieties with a feather or a paintbrush).
What Is An Heirloom Variety?
“Heirloom” is more of a cultural reference. All heirlooms are open pollinated, but not all OP varieties are heirloom. The term is a reference to the age, historic and cultural value of an open-pollinated variety. Most heirlooms are open-pollinated varieties that have been saved, stewarded and curated over generations; a few were more recently adapted but still hold cultural significance. Some seed savers insist that an heirloom must be 50 years or older, while others do not require this age restriction in order to consider a variety an heirloom. An heirloom might be your great grandmother’s favorite hot pepper seeds that she passed on to you, a uniquely colored tomato bred for the farm-to table restaurants in San Francisco, or a dry bean that has been grown by a traditional indigenous group for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. All hold a place in our hearts and their seeds will breed true.
What Is A Hybrid Variety?
This is another important botanical term. Hybrids are varieties that were more recently cross pollinated and their seeds will not “breed true.” For example, when saving seeds from a hybrid tomato, the resulting fruit from those saved seeds you planted will be a random genetic mixup and likely not resemble the original tomato from which the seeds were harvested. Remember learning about Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics who crossed different pea varieties in his monastery garden? He was creating hybrids. From his work many advancements in hybridizing techniques have been made, some more labor intensive than others.
In practical terms, this means that gardeners will have to buy fresh hybrid seeds each year and cannot save their own for replanting. Keep in mind that many lovely heirlooms began from the simple hybridizing process and through careful selection have become stabilized and dubbed open pollinated.
Newly crossed hybrids often possess vigor, which makes them grow very strong, and it is one reason hybrids are appreciated. Baker Creek does not offer any hybrid varieties because we prefer only to offer seeds that can be reliably saved and passed down.
What Is A GMO Seed?
GMO stands for “genetically modified organism,” one whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques that cannot occur naturally. Genetic modification is a multi-step process involving gene isolation and insertion. This genetic crossing can happen within the same species, or between different species and even different kingdoms (e.g. bacterial genes, or animal genes inserted into plant genetic sequences). Some popular examples of GMO crops are herbicide-tolerant crops, which allow farmers to apply a broad spectrum herbicide to an entire field without the modified crop being killed. There are also crops with insecticidal genes inserted to prevent predation.
GMO varieties are not presently offered to home gardeners. Rather they are designed for large-scale agriculture, so a home gardener perusing the seed rack at their garden center is likely not in danger of unwittingly buying a GMO seed.
We think it’s important to talk about GMO seeds, though, because cross contamination between GMO and non-GMO crops is a concern. GMO crops, particularly corn and soybeans, are widely grown across the U.S. These often contaminate open-pollinated varieties, thus removing the freedom of choice for those who want to grow only non-GMO crops.
We support this freedom to abstain from growing GMO crops, and Baker Creek tests all of its corn varieties for purity.
What Is A Patented Seed?
Since time immemorial, the rich biodiversity of plants and all of their genetic material has been free for breeders, on a small or a large scale, to select and innovate varieties that are stronger, well adapted to specific climates or pests, or just uniquely tasty and beautiful. Planet Earth’s bountiful treasure trove of genetics has helped us to select and specify, making it possible for humans to feed themselves even in the most intense climates!
Today a very small handful of major corporations account for the vast majority of the world’s seed breeding and sales. The use of restrictive seed patenting laws has successfully closed the door on the once open and free network of genetic material for breeding, keeping important, foundational genetic material restricted from use by universities and private breeders. Such restrictions can make it more difficult for university or private research, breeding and innovation.
There is a contingent of modern-day breeders who are dedicated to open- sourced breeding. They are selecting fantastic, hardy varieties to meet today's changing needs, and they are keeping their work open to the public, so as to foster innovation and strength in our future food supply. Thanks to patenting, the genetic bank for non-patented varieties and their genetics has been shrinking over the past decades, leaving open-source breeders with much less material to work with.
Baker Creek never sells patented varieties. All of our seeds are open pollinated and open sourced, which means there are no legal ramifications for using these beautiful and storied heirlooms to breed your own special varieties. We support and celebrate the work of open-source breeders to ensure that resilient and useful plant genetic characteristics are always available to anyone.
What Is A Treated Seed?
Many companies choose to “treat” their seeds. This can mean applying a special coating around the seed or using a technique like hot water exposure to help protect against seed-borne pathogens. The term treated can refer to a number of different possibilities, from hot water to various chemical, physical or biological measures. Untreated seeds are not exposed to any of these treatments. There are many benign and very useful treatments for seeds. To call a seed treated does not inherently connote anything negative. However, in the pursuit of making customers’ decision making easier and more transparent, we keep our seeds completely untreated. As a home grower, should you want to try hot water treatment with our seeds, there are many tutorials available online and through your local county extension office.
Baker Creek believes that seeds belong to the people, and that everyone has the right to save and share seeds freely. We also believe that seeds should be open to anyone who wants to create new varieties. We only sell heirloom and open-pollinated varieties, and we do not treat our seeds.