I’m reading about seed-saving here and there, and seed-breeding, and contemplating doing a cross myself next year to see what happens. And I keep seeing the same grating message to seed-savers: “You can’t save seed from hybrids because the seeds will be sterile.” People, this is not true. There are other, good reasons for people not to save seed from hybrids–they won’t come true to type or they’re patented, for example–but this one is, with possible rare exceptions, totally false.

I think the main problem is the word “hybrid,” which has a couple of meanings (like the word “theory,” but let’s not get into that right now). Sometimes it means “organism/object/whatever created from two different species/departments/whatever.” Like the mule, which is certainly sterile. But in gardening, it generally means “species created from parents of the same species but dissimilar traits.” (Here’s where the rare exceptions could come in–it’s perfectly possible to get offspring from two different species wherein the offspring really are sterile–like the mule. But it’s not common in animals and I don’t think it’s common in plants.) It doesn’t mean creating a chimera. A plant hybrid is the equivalent of crossing a purebred cocker spaniel with a purebred poodle–or a black man with a white woman, for that matter, except without the genetic purity. You get the same species with the same procreative abilities (unless you start looking at bulldogs, which I’m told have been bred for looks so much that they can’t procreate on their own), plus a new mix of characteristics. You get a mutt. Mutts can breed.

It would make seed-breeding really hard if it weren’t possible to cross different types of peas, or tomatoes, or C. moschata squash, or what-have-you. How would you get genetic diversity? Different traits? How do you explain the wanton crossing of squash and corn? Yes, they’re domesticated and their characteristics aren’t quite like they would be in the wild, but they don’t cross like the proverbial chicken because it’s a lousy way to propagate their species. They do it because it’s a great way to propagate their species. Genetic diversity –> wide variety of traits –> greater chance that some will live no matter what happens –> species survival. They don’t care whether they still taste the same as long as they keep on surviving to the next generation. (An organism is a gene’s way of making more genes.)

Inbreeding plants also have a good method for ensuring their survival, doin’ it for themselves; it’s just a different one. But they too can be crossed. Look at Rebsie’s beautiful pea-breeding experiments. (I’ve mentioned these before. I just love them.) That’s what I’d like to do, only with beans because I like them better (and I don’t want to be a copycat). There’s no scientific reason why it won’t work. And there’s no scientific reason not to save seed from hybrids. There are practical ones, but if you want to save seed from that Early Girl or Graffiti cauliflower to see what happens, you’ll get plants next year. Maybe you’ll get something good, maybe you won’t–but you will get perfectly viable plants.

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