• negative frequency-dependent selection;
  • nuclear-cytoplasmic gynodioecy;
  • overdominance;
  • spatial heterogeneity;
  • trans-specific polymorphism


Balancing selection refers to a variety of selective regimes that maintain advantageous genetic diversity within populations. We review the history of the ideas regarding the types of selection that maintain such polymorphism in flowering plants, notably heterozygote advantage, negative frequency-dependent selection, and spatial heterogeneity. One shared feature of these mechanisms is that whether an allele is beneficial or detrimental is conditional on its frequency in the population. We highlight examples of balancing selection on a variety of discrete traits. These include the well-referenced case of self-incompatibility and recent evidence from species with nuclear-cytoplasmic gynodioecy, both of which exhibit trans-specific polymorphism, a hallmark of balancing selection. We also discuss and give examples of how spatial heterogeneity in particular, which is often thought unlikely to allow protected polymorphism, can maintain genetic variation in plants (which are rooted in place) as a result of microhabitat selection. Lastly, we discuss limitations of the protected polymorphism concept for quantitative traits, where selection can inflate the genetic variance without maintaining specific alleles indefinitely. We conclude that while discrete-morph variation provides the most unambiguous cases of protected polymorphism, they represent only a fraction of the balancing selection at work in plants.