Can You Grow Fruit Trees From Seed?

Grafting vs. Seeds
Years ago, I saw a tv program that tried - and succeeded - making so-called "preppers" look as crazy as possible. I found myself freuently shaking my head at the families featured on the show - mostly when their mistakes could easily be avoided by educating themselves with a few books.  One thing I particularly remember was a family who saved seeds from their grocery store fruits and veggies, keeping them to plant a garden in case hard times fell upon them.

There was a lot wrong with their plan, including the fact that they were saving seeds not suited to their climate and that they had no gardening experience, but somehow thought they'd be successful gardeners if need arose. But today, I want to talk about why their seeds were, at a very basic level, not a good choice.

The Seed of Our Plum Tree

We have one plum tree on our homestead that we all adore. Unfortunately, while we have many plum trees, only one of them is this variety - deep red, with blood red flesh that's a wonderful mix of sweet and tart. We've been unsuccessful at researching what variety it might be, and cannot find anything that even looks similar at our local stores, where we believe all the newer fruit trees on our homestead were purchased by the previous owners. So the other day, my husband said he was going to save some of those plum's seed pits and plant them.

Unfortunately, that won't really work.

Our coveted red plums.
Yes, we can plant the plum's seed pits and trees will grow from them. But the resulting plant won't produce fruit that's exactly like the plums we adore. This is because fruit seeds aren't "true to seed."

Seeds vs. Grafting

At first blush, this may seem ridiculous, but it's all about genetics. Fruit seeds are produced via sexual reproduction - that is to say, they have a male parent and a female parent. Because they have genes from two different parents, the seeds won't produce a plant (or fruit) that's exactly like either parent. (Just like my kids don't look or act exactly like me; they are a mixture of my genes and their father's genes.)

So if you want an Elberta peach tree, how do nurseries ensure you get what we've come to know as an Elberta - a vigorous, sweet peach with classic, fuzzy skin? By grafting.

Grafting is an asexual form of reproduction; it does not require two parents, but instead uses genes from only one parent, creating a genetic clone.

In the grafting process, one tree branch (perhaps from that Elberta peach) is inserted into the trunk of another tree (which can be totally unrelated...say, an apple). The Elberta begins using the apple's sap, growing into its trunk until there's just a bump where the two meet.

All root stock for known fruit tree varieties is traced back to the original tree, which was created
Peach pit. Courtesy of
naturally, through seed. For example, if you have a Granny Smith apple tree, it has rootstock that's traced back to the original Granny Smith tree, which originated in Australia in 1868, from a pile of crabapples someone tossed into a pile. (Maria Ann Smith liked the fruit from the resulting tree and reproduced it via grafting.)

There is an exception to the grafting vs. seed rule: Most citrus trees are "true to seed" because their seeds contain more than one plant embryo. One of those embryos requires sexual reproduction, but the rest are clones. Citrus that doesn't grow "true to seed" are: Meyer lemon, Clementine mandarin, Pummelo, Marumi Kumquat, Nagami Kumquat, Trifoliate orange (a.k.a. Poncirus trifoliata, Citrus trifoliata, Japanese bitter-orange, or Chinese bitter orange), and Temple Tangor.

What About Vegetables?

Genetics are similar when it comes to seeds from grocery store (or hybrid) vegetables. You can save the seeds, and often they are fertile, but they will not produce food like what you originally purchased. (Please don't confuse hybrid plants and seeds with GMO seeds. Click here for further explanation.)

Hybrid veggies are made by crossing the pollen of two different varieties, either naturally (via wind, birds, etc.) or human interferance. The resulting "babies" have traits from both parent plants, and therefore produce food that has a different combination of genes from their genetic pool.

Granny Smith apples.
Does It Really Matter?

There are plenty of people who will tell you none of this matters and you should go ahead and plant fruit trees from seed and use the seed saved from hybrid plants in your garden. They may be right. It's all a matter of perspective.

If you don't mind waiting years for fruit trees to produce fruit - only to perhaps discover you don't like the taste of that fruit - then go for it! Have fun experimenting with planted fruit pits.

And if you don't mind not knowing exactly what you'll get when you plant seeds saved from hybrids - whether they will taste good (or be totally inedible), be productive, or be disease or pest resistent - then go ahead and use those, too.

But if you want a more reliable crop, you'll want to either buy or make grafted fruit trees. And  vegetable seeds? You'll either save open-pollinated varieties, or buy hybrid seeds, or a combo of both. There is nothing wrong with either way of gardening - so long as you understand the pros and cons of each.

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