Hybrid plants can be a valuable addition to a landrace garden if the right hybrids are incorporated. Hybrids have a mixed parentage, so there will be some level of diversity among the offspring. Saving seeds from well adapted plants among a genetically diverse population is one of the fundamental principles of landrace gardening.
Hybrids are often created from “elite germplasm”, so they may contain traits for more robust growth, higher yield, or resistance to pests and disease. These traits can be a valuable addition to a landrace.
My cantaloupe localization project included many commercial hybrids and, after the first year, many natural hybrids. I retain a lot of variability in the landrace regarding shape and size of fruit, and the texture of the skin. I save seeds from plants that have great taste, a wonderfully musky smell, and orange flesh. Occasionally I save seeds from a bad tasting fruit if it has some other trait that I want to explore. The bad tasters get planted in an out of the way spot where they won’t contribute much pollen to my main production beds. If some of their offspring produce great tasting fruit then I’ll add them back into the production beds. This week’s photos are of my cantaloupe landrace: descendants of hybrids. Every fruit smells and tastes great regardless of what it looks like.
The first year a commercial hybrid is grown, the plants will be near clones of each other. If the seeds are saved and replanted a variety of different types of offspring are likely to show up. Plants tend to resemble their parents and their grandparents, and most of the plants will contain a mixture of traits that is like the mother of the hybrid, or like the father, or like some blend of traits that is midway between that of the mother and the father. We don’t typically know the parents of a commercial hybrid, but they have been selected to produce great offspring when paired with each other. The grandchildren are also likely to be great plants. A lot of work went into identifying those traits. We might as well incorporate them into our landrace gardens.
If the seeds from a hybrid tomato are saved and replanted, they will always produce a tomato plant. If the seeds from a great hybrid are saved they are likely to produce great offspring. If the seeds from a mediocre hybrid are saved they are likely to produce mediocre offspring.
The drawback of using commercial hybrids in a landrace garden is that hybrids in some species are made using cytoplasmic male sterility. This type of sterility is a trait of the mother plant, and it is passed on to all of her descendants. That is valuable to a commercial seed production company because it greatly reduces the cost of producing hybrid seed. I don’t like partially sterile plants in a landrace.
Commercial hybrids of the following species are generally made using cytoplasmic male sterility. I recommend that commercial hybrids of these species not be included in a landrace: Broccoli, cabbage, radish, onion, carrot, beet and sunflower.
Hybrids of brassicas can also be made using self incompatibility, so those hybrids would be safe to use in a landrace if the seed company disclosed what method of production they used, or if the flowers are examined for normal pollen production.
Hybrids of the following crops are generally free of cytoplasmic male sterility: tomato, cucumber, squash, corn, watermelon, melons and spinach.
Beans and peas are such radical in-breeders that commercial hybrids are not available.
Before I was aware of cytoplasmic male sterility, about 70% of my carrot landrace was male sterile. They grew fine. The fertile plants produced more than enough pollen for the whole patch. It seems undesirable to me to grow partially sterile plants, so each year I examine my carrot landrace and chop out any sterile plants. I am especially careful when I import new varieties into my garden. I intend to revisit the topic of male sterility in a future post and include more details about how to identify sterile plants.
Some crops, such as tomatoes, peas, and beans are mostly in-breeders and don’t produce many natural hybrids. I watch for the rare natural hybrids among them and give any that I find a special place in the garden. I create hybrids by manual cross pollination. This year I grew the descendants of a naturally occurring bean hybrid named “Resilient Bean Breeder” which was discovered by Carol Deppe. I am very pleased with it. There is diversity in plant structure, productivity, and maturity dates. Planting the offspring of hybrids allows tremendous opportunities to find plants that really thrive in my garden.
A century ago, my great-great grandfather discovered a naturally occurring hybrid in his wheat field. He saved the seed from it. Eventually it became the most widely planted wheat in northern Utah and southern Idaho. Our family still grows “Lofthouse Wheat”, and we still reap the benefit of the good will that was generated because he replanted seeds from a hybrid and attached our name to the resulting landrace.
I love including the offspring of hybrids in my landraces. The segregating offspring of hybrids provide many opportunities to find the perfect combination of genes to localize a plant population to my garden and way of doing things. This is part of the reason why I believe that landrace gardening is a path towards food security through common sense and traditional methods.
Next week’s blog will be a photo essay about some of my landrace plant harvests from this growing season.
Bio: Joseph Lofthouse grows vegetables in a cold mountain valley where he practices the art of landrace gardening in order to feed his community more effectively.
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