If you’re around chili peppers (or any vegetable long enough) – whether you’re a gardener or not – you’r bound to hear reference to hybrid plants. But what is a hybrid plant? Is it something cultivated? Can it happen on its own? Are their benefits to these peppers? We break down these answers and more below.
The 101: What is a hybrid plant?
Let’s focus on peppers since it’s what we’re all about. You create a pepper hybrid when you use the pollen from one pepper plant to pollinate the flower of a different variety of pepper plant. Chili peppers can fertilize themselves (often referred to as self-pollination) and when they do, they create fruit with seeds that will produce a close replica of the parent plant.
When they cross-pollinate with another plant instead of self-pollinating, the result is a pepper plant that has some each of its parent plants’ genetic materials. The pepper plant that results from this cross-pollination is called a hybrid. Hybridization is most successful with plants from the same species though it is sometimes possible to create a hybrid from two different species.
The history of hybrids
Research by Austrian monk Gregor Mendel uncovered many of the facts we now know about plant genes via his efforts in plant breeding and genetics. Mendel studied inheritance in a variety of plants, but his most important discoveries came from studying the pea plant. Mendel was the first person to demonstrate the mechanism of hybridization.
Farmers had been using cross-pollination to create higher-yielding hybrids for centuries but Mendel’s discoveries enabled plant breeders to a better job of selecting for desirable traits.
Chili peppers and hybrids
The first generation pepper hybrid is called the first filial generation, which is often shortened to F1. Finding the desired result sometimes takes years and multiple generations. The plants produced by the first generation are inspected and the hybrid is repeated. If the inspection shows that the traits are not what the breeder desired, they will try again.
Hybrid chili peppers usually have traits from both parents though sometimes the peppers will more closely resemble one plant than the other. In most cases, F1 hybrid plants will resemble each other but differ from each of the parents. F2 seeds can produce plants that differ both from the parents and each other. The difference between generations is because F1 plants’ chromosome pairs will have different genes.
The benefits of hybrids
The whole point of creating hybrids is to improve upon desirable traits. When a plant breeder spots the traits they want, they use selective breeding to enhance them so that the following generations should be more consistent.
Desirable traits for peppers include:
- Increased heat: The Carolina Reaper is one of the world’s hottest peppers and is an example of a hybrid bred for a high heat level. The bhut jolokia (ghost pepper) and the red habanero are the Carolina Reaper’s parent plants.
- Resistance to disease: A breeder may also create hybrids to be especially resistant to diseases that affect pepper plants. Common pepper plant diseases include bacterial leaf spot and mosaic virus. There are chili peppers bred specifically to be resistant to those diseases.
- Higher yield: Higher yields are among the objectives of pepper breeders. They want to maximize the amount of fruit produced per plant. Along with choosing parent plants that are resistant to insects and disease, a plant breeder may also increase yield with a hybrid that requires less room to grow thus allowing more plants to occupy a relatively small area.
Note that an important part of selective breeding involves preventing accidental hybrids.
Unintentional hybridization is common and occurs when seeds do not produce the plants they were intended to produce. The differences between fruit from the accidental hybrid plant and the intended fruit can be minor or they can be significant. For instance, some chilies look like unassuming bell peppers due to accidental hybridization, yet pack a surprising punch of heat. In either case, a plant breeder can turn an accidental hybrid into a variety with selective breeding.