Hidden costs of hybrids

Hybrids can be trouble. No, not hybrid cars. Hybrid flowers. Now, because I've been writing about organic gardening and the environment for several years, I receive all sorts of interesting things in the mail. There are press kits about the newest advances in slug-killing technology. There are esoteric tomes devoted to every conceivable type of mulch or, say, the history of the garden rake. But sometimes I score “sneak preview” plants to try in my own backyard. These sample plants are usually hybrids, painstakingly bred for showier blooms, unusual leaf shape, or extra flashy color. And, while they are interesting and can perform quite well with little help from me, there are hidden costs.

Never mind that a hybrid's offspring invariably will revert to one of the parent plants, leaving the gardener to live with whatever may spring from those showy hybrids' seeds or to buy new hybrid flowers year after year. And never mind that some new hybrids are just plain ugly, according to the "Renegade Gardener," Don Engebretson. When contemplating the nursery industry's creation of a double-decker, purple coneflower, for instance, he wonders, "You actually think we wanted this Frankensteinian monster?" It's a fair question.

What really matters is that, for better or worse, annual plant developers obtain one or two special traits at the expense of others -- typically flower scent or nectar and pollen production. But a dearth of protein-rich pollen and energy-boosting nectar is not what our troubled bees and other wild pollinators need right now. In the case of honey bees, they go through a tremendous amount of nectar and pollen in order to raise their young, sustain themselves from day to day, and survive winter. That's why I plant hybrid flowers sparingly. After all, there's no sense taking up valuable real estate in the garden with plants which may not offer everything that my area's beneficial insects, bees, and even hummingbirds really need. Instead, I put out flower varieties which may not be quite as fancy as my neighbor's hybrid annuals but are certainly worthwhile.