Ah, spring! Every gardener’s favorite season: the smell of freshly turned soil, tiny green seedlings thrusting ever upwards, and nary a weed in sight (yet!). What better way to spend the last few dreary weeks of winter than by poring over seed catalogs with their luscious photos and enticing descriptions of that elusive perfect pepper.
The only hard part is deciding how many different varieties of those beauties you have room for in your garden. Well, that, and deciding between heirloom, open-pollinated, and hybrid peppers. What are the differences, you ask?
These peppers have been around for a long time. In some cases, perhaps hundreds of years; at the minimum, 50 years. Heirlooms are always open-pollinated plants that have typically been handed down through the generations. This means they are usually very well adapted to the living conditions where they originated.
These peppers may, or may not, be heirlooms. All open-pollinated means is that they will breed true to type and they don’t need a gardener’s help to do it. If gardeners save seed from an open-pollinated plant, they can be reasonably sure that the plants they produce from that seed will be the same as the parent plants as long as there isn’t a close relative nearby.
Because hot peppers and sweet peppers are closely related and can cross-pollinate each other, don’t grow them too close together. If you do, you’re apt to find a surprise in next year’s sweet peppers. Hot pepper genes are dominant and you might find that your bell peppers now have an extra zing. If you grew their mama too close to a Habanero or Thai chile, they may have quite a bit of zing!
These are crosses between two different varieties of peppers in hopes that the offspring will combine all of the good characteristics of both parents while eliminating the bad. If one parent has amazing flavor but is susceptible to blight, and the other isn’t bothered by blight but only has so-so flavor, the plant breeder hopes that their offspring will have great flavor and resist blight.
Two dissimilar varieties can unite to produce offspring that are bigger, healthier, faster growing, more uniform, higher yielding, more pest-resistant…
Hybrid seeds allow farmers to grow huge fields of peppers that will all reach the same size and yield large numbers of peppers ready for harvest at the same time. Hybrids are also chosen for their ability to stand up to mechanical harvesting, shipping, and sitting on store shelves for a week or more. This maximizes efficiency, productivity, and profit.
Unfortunately, hybrid seeds don’t breed true. If you try to save seeds from your hybrid plants, you can expect surprises in your pepper patch next year. Tall, short, sickly, robust, tasty or tasteless – anything can appear from seed saved from hybrid plants. Just consider them the one-hit wonders of your garden. That’s why if you choose to grow hybrids for their many benefits, you can also expect to shell out money for new seeds when that original packet is empty.
Well, there you have it in a nutshell: how hybrid pepper seeds are made and how they differ from heirlooms and other open-pollinated varieties. Which will you choose for your garden?