Cross Pollination In Plants: Cross Pollinating Vegetables

warty knuckledhead pumpkins
warty knuckledhead pumpkins
(Image credit: Debbie Eckert)

Can cross pollination in vegetable gardens occur? Can you get a zumato or a cucumelon? Cross pollination in plants seems to be a big concern for gardeners, but in fact, in most cases, it isn't a big issue. Let's learn what is cross pollination and when you should be concerned with it.

What is Cross Pollination?

Cross pollination is when one plant pollinates a plant of another variety. The two plants' genetic material combines and the resulting seeds from that pollination will have characteristics of both varieties and is a new variety. Sometimes cross pollinating is used intentionally in the garden to create new varieties. For example, a popular hobby is to cross pollinate tomato varieties to attempt to create new, better varieties. In these cases, the varieties are purposefully cross pollinated. Other times, cross pollination in plants occurs when outside influences, like the wind or bees, carry pollen from one variety to another.

How Does Cross Pollination in Plants Affect the Plants?

Many gardeners are afraid that the plants in their vegetable garden will accidentally cross pollinate and that they will end up with fruit on the plant that is sub-standard. There are two misconceptions here that need to be addressed. First, cross pollination can only occur between varieties, not species. So, for example, a cucumber cannot cross pollinate with a squash. They are not the same species. This would be like a dog and a cat being able to create offspring together. It is simply not possible. But, cross pollination can happen between a zucchini and a pumpkin. This would be like a yorkie dog and a rottweiler dog producing offspring. Odd, but possible, because they are of the same species. Second, the fruit from a plant that is cross pollinated would not be affected. Many times you'll hear someone state that they know their squash cross pollinated this year because the squash fruit look odd. This is not possible. Cross pollination does not affect this years' fruit, but will affect the fruit of any seeds planted from that fruit. There is only one exception to this, and that is corn. Ears of corn will change if the current stalk is cross pollinated. Most cases where the fruit looks odd happens because the plant is suffering from a problem that affects the fruit, such as pests, disease or nutrient deficiencies. Less often, odd looking vegetables are a result of seeds grown from last year's cross pollinated fruit. Normally, this is more common in seeds that have been harvested by the gardener, as commercial seed producers take steps to prevent cross pollination. Cross pollination in plants can be controlled but you only need to worry about controlling cross pollination if you plan on saving seeds.

Heather Rhoades
Founder of Gardening Know How

Heather Rhoades founded Gardening Know How in 2007. She holds degrees from Cleveland State University and Northern Kentucky University. She is an avid gardener with a passion for community, and is a recipient of the Master Gardeners of Ohio Lifetime Achievement Award.