Defining Seed and Plant Terms Avoids Confusion

seed packetWhile answering questions after a recent vegetable gardening talk, a beginning gardener asked me to explain some common seed terms found in garden catalogs and on seed packets.

Because there’s a lot of confusion these days about seed and plant terms, I thought I’d share my answers to help you with your seed sorting, too.

Common Seed Terms Defined

GE—Genetically Engineered seed describes the method of incorporating genes directly into an organism. These seeds are not found in nature, but they are genetically engineered in the laboratory. Some examples of genetically engineered crops include corn modified to protect itself from corn borer damage and herbicide-resistant soybeans, canola and other crops. It’s unlikely that home gardeners will see any packets of GE seeds in garden centers or catalogs.

GMO—Genetically Modified Organisms are different from those genetically engineered. GMO is a broad term that refers to seeds produced through any type of genetic modification. This modification can be through modern genetic engineering or through traditional plant breeding. When plant breeders, working with conventional or organically produced varieties, select for certain desirable traits they are making the same kinds of selections that can happen in nature. This produces a type of hybrid. Examples include adding disease resistance to an open-pollinated variety or a hybrid cross between two cultivars. If you’ve ever enjoyed a seedless watermelon, you’ve tasted a genetically modified organism.

Heirloom—Heirloom seeds are typically defined as open-pollinated varieties that are the result of natural selection instead of controlled hybridizing. These are varieties that have been passed down over generations. Commercial seed producing companies now grow seeds from many heirlooms. Seeds saved from heirlooms will produce plants with the same traits as the parent plant. Some favorite heirlooms include ‘Brandywine’ tomatoes and ‘Kentucky Wonder’ beans.

Hybrid—Hybrid plants are often labeled F1 because they are the first generation hybrid. Modern hybrids are produced by cross-pollinating two distinct parents for their positive traits. F1 seeds saved and planted will not grow “true” like open-pollinated varieties. Examples of popular hybrids are ‘Celebrity’ and ‘Sungold’ tomatoes.

OP—Open-pollinated seed varieties result from being pollinated by insects, wind or other methods of natural pollination. Seeds saved from open-pollinated plants will grow the same plant as its parent plants, year after year.

Organic Seed—The term “Certified Organic” on a seed packet is a legal distinction. It means the growers are in compliance with all the rules and regulations specified by the USDA’s National Organic Program. Organic seeds are grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and genetic engineering is prohibited.

Treated Seed—Treated seeds are seeds coated with a product, usually a fungicide. Seed companies will specify if the seed is treated to protect the seed from pathogens when being planted.

Do you have other seed or plant terms you’d like defined? Please let me know!


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