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The Garden Decoder: On Cultivars, Nativars, and Natives

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The Garden Decoder: On Cultivars, Nativars, and Natives

February 21, 2022

There’s been a lot of buzz lately on planting native plants to help pollinators and the environment—for good reason. Natives have quite a bit going for them. They provide food and shelter for bees and butterflies (and birds and other wildlife, too) in all their life stages. They are very happy to grow in their native range where their soil, light, and water needs are met. In other words, they are the foundation of the local ecosystem and food web. Prioritizing native plants promotes a healthy garden that supports a variety of life and reduces the need for extra water, fertilizer, and pesticides.

With this in mind, you visit your local garden center and find plants labeled “natives,” “nativars,” as well as “cultivars.” Which ones should you select? Let’s decode what they all mean.

What is a native plant?

Echinacea pallida is native to the Midwest and southern states. Photograph courtesy of Thomas Lynch Design, from Gardening \10\1: Coneflower.
Above: Echinacea pallida is native to the Midwest and southern states. Photograph courtesy of Thomas Lynch Design, from Gardening 101: Coneflower.

A native plant, also known as a “straight species,” is one that has been in its environment without human introduction. These plants have been part of the local ecosystem and have evolved with it over the course of thousands of years. Natives provide food and shelter to native insects and animals; in return, the insects and animals help pollinate and disperse the seeds, thus continuing the cycle.

What is a cultivar?

Above: Roses are among the most cultivated flowers. Pictured is the garden of professional rose breeder extraordinare David Austin, who introduced his first hybrid in 1961. Photograph courtesy of David Austin Roses, from English Gardens: David Austin Roses in Shropshire.

“Cultivar” is short for “cultivated variety.” A cultivar is a plant that has some of the main characteristics of the original plant but with enhancements. Plants labeled as such were bred by humans (via cuttings, grafting, or tissue culture) for specific traits and cannot be reliably propagated by seed. Furthermore, native wildlife may not be able to use them as food. Cultivars are usually identified with a trademark name following its scientific name (e.g., Rosa ‘Princess Anne’ ). The label can apply to both native and non-native plants, which leads us to…

What is a nativar?

Above: Research has shown that, unlike with native echinacea, it’s nearly impossible for pollinators to gather pollen and nectar from Echinacea purpurea ‘Pink Double Delight.’ Photograph via Burpee.

The name comes from the combination of the word “native” and the word “cultivar.” Nativars are native cultivars created either via selective breeding or genetic engineering for the purposes of disease resistance or attractiveness. For example, ‘Princeton’ Elm was developed to be resistant to Dutch Elm disease. And the purple coneflower, echinacea, which normally has pale purple flowers, has been bred to have orange, red, yellow, and white flowers.

The downside? “Research has begun to show that in some cases, cultivated varieties of wild native plant species…have lost some or all of their value to wildlife. For example, when we cultivate a native plant to have showier blooms than its wild form, we might inadvertently make it difficult or impossible for pollinators such as bees or butterflies to reach the flower’s nectar. If you want your plantings to support local birds, pollinators ,and other wildlife, choosing the straight species of a plant, not a named cultivar, is the best choice.” says David Mizejewski,  a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation.

What’s best for your garden?

Nasami Farm&#8\2\17;s nursery sells hundreds of native species including wildflowers, ferns, grass, trees, and shrubs. Photograph by Justine Hand for Gardenista, from Nasami Farms: A New England Mecca for Native Plant Lovers.
Above: Nasami Farm’s nursery sells hundreds of native species including wildflowers, ferns, grass, trees, and shrubs. Photograph by Justine Hand for Gardenista, from Nasami Farms: A New England Mecca for Native Plant Lovers.

First choice should be native species. They will support the most wildlife and need the least amount of resources, time, and effort.

Nativars would be the next choice if native species aren’t available, but bear in mind that some of their attractiveness to wildlife may have been bred out.

And then last, non-native cultivars. They support the least amount of wildlife and can require more water, fertilizer, pesticides than natives or nativars.

Whatever you choose to do, it doesn’t mean you will need to replace your non-native plants in one season. But as you add or replace plants, consider how the new plant will fit into your backyard, what wildlife it will support, and what resources it will need.

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