Hybrid tomatoes sometimes get a bad rap. They are portrayed as hard, tasteless, red “tennis balls” bred for ease of harvesting and transportation. While this is occasionally the case, most often hybrids are bred for disease resistance, uniformity, and vigor. The poor taste and texture of tomatoes in the supermarket, especially in the winter often comes from the tomatoes being harvested green and artificially ripened.
Many times this is done due to the vagaries of weather- freezing temperatures, too much or too little rain, etc.
The main focus of tomato researchers, and hybrid tomato research dates back to the end of World War II, was breeding for increased plant vigor and disease resistance. The foundation for this work was laid by Gregor Mendel in his experiments in the 1800′s.
There are college degrees awarded in the science of plant breeding so needless to say we won’t be getting very deep into this subject here. The first commercially available F1 hybrid tomato was the “Big Boy” produced by the Burpee Company in 1949.
The hybridization of tomatoes, and any plant, involves years of plant selection and study. Hybrid tomatoes are the result of crossing two dissimilar parent plants to achieve a new plant which is superior to either parent and has the desired qualities the researcher is trying to achieve. The seeds produced by these plants are known as F1 hybrids.
The resulting plants as we noted, have qualities superior to the parents in many areas. An example of a F1 hybrid in the animal world that you may be familiar with is a mule, which is the result of breeding a horse and a donkey.
The production of hybrid seeds, once the genetic lineage is established, is incredibly labor intensive. Tomato plants are naturally self-pollinating, so steps need to be taken to keep this from happening. The tomato plant from which the pollen will be gathered from is considered the male plant.
The blossoms are removed from these plants and the pollen is collected. The female plants are those that will be pollinated and bear the fruit containing the hybrid seeds. The male parts of these flowers are removed and the female parts are pollinated with the pollen collected from the male plant line. Since this is all done by hand, it is very time consuming, and a certain amount of skill is needed.
Once the blossoms are fertilized, the fruits are allowed to ripen and the seeds are harvested normally.
Hybrid tomatoes are bred for disease resistance and other qualities help boost production and enable farmers to produce tomatoes more efficiently. The major draw back of hybrid seeds is that the desirable traits the F1 hybrids have do not carry over to the next generation of seeds. Thus, the grower must go back to the seed company every year. This is not the case with open pollinated tomatoes where some of the seed from each year’s crop can be saved for next year.
In the home garden, hybrid tomatoes can be just as tasty as their heirloom cousins because the home gardener can take personal care of the plants they have and not be driven by economics to harvest early to ship their crop thousands of miles. The home gardener also will benefit from the increased disease resistance of hybrid tomatoes.