What’s in a Name? Heirloom vs Hybrid

“A hybrid by any other name would taste as sweet” — overheard in Shakespeare’s garden.

Guest Author: Isabella Lazzareschi

We hear these words all the time — heirloom tomatoes, hybrid fruits, GMOs, but what do they all mean? Which ones are healthiest, tastiest, most nutritious? Your garden friends at Avalow are here to help break down and debunk these buzzwords (along with making it way easier to be successful in your own yard).


A piece of produce is considered an “heirloom” if the seeds used to grow that crop have been passed down for multiple generations, much like any other type of family heirloom. For thousands of years, farmers have been selecting the most desirable qualities in their plants — such as fruit size, taste, or resilience — and using the seeds from those fruits and vegetables to grow genetically identical crops each year. Although the exact definition of an heirloom can vary, it’s generally agreed upon that an heirloom is an open-pollinated crop developed before the mass hybridization of the 1950s. An example of a true heirloom is a Cherokee Purple tomato, a varietal from Tennessee, which had been grown by the same family for over 100 years.

To continue the lineage and characteristics of their parent crops, heirlooms are open-pollinated, which means that they are naturally fertilized by wind, birds, insects, etc., with the high possibility that they will grow into genetically identical plants each year. It’s important to note that all heirloom tomatoes are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated tomatoes are considered heirlooms.


Let’s get the misconception out of the way: hybrid crops are not genetically modified. Hybridization is a controlled method of pollination in which two different species of plant are crossed, usually by human intervention. This does not mean that hybrid crops are “unnatural” by any means. In fact, humans have been cross-breeding crops all the way back to the time of the mayans, and many fruits and vegetables that are considered standard today are actually hybrids. For example, a grapefruit was developed by is a crossing an orange and a pummelo sometime in the early 1700s.

Many hybrid plants are created from “parent plants” with ideal characteristics, so they are often beautiful, resilient, delicious and healthy. However, using the seeds of these hybrid tomatoes will not replicate the parent tomato. Instead, the seed of a hybrid plant will be either one of its “grandparent” plants. For this reason, it can be difficult to get consistent results from one year to the next with hybrid seeds.


Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are created when the DNA of the plant has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. Therefore, GMOs cannot be created without human intervention, whereas hybridization technically can occur by open-pollination, without humans. According to the World Health Organization, all genetically modified foods that are currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. Despite this, many people have worries about the ongoing health risks.

So — what’ll it be?

Avalow believes that fruit and vegetables should be naturally delicious, nutritious, and of high value (meaning plentiful and easy to grow). With this goal, both hybrid and heirloom crops fit the bill. While GMOs can have many benefits to both growers and consumers, we like to stick to the old fashioned way, and let mother nature do her thing. We simply think open-pollinated natural vegetables taste better, are more nutritious, and those things are very important. 


Isabella is a content strategist, writer, and editor based in San Francisco, CA. Previously in academia studying clinical psychology, she's extremely interested in the intersection of language and emotion. Her content consists of everything from the complexities of healthcare to the mundane pleasures of life.