Are ‘Nativars’ The Enemy?

The most recent issue of the Wild Ones bi-monthly journal arrived the other day, featuring a big page one article on ‘Nativars’, or cultivars of native species. I’m a member of Wild Ones, which seeks to promote the use of native plants. The article lays out the organization’s recently adopted stance regarding these plants, which is that their use should be discouraged in the garden and avoided entirely in restorations.

New England Aster
New England Aster

Nativars can be naturally occurring varieties or the result of breeding programs. They are selected for desirable traits, such as compact habit, disease resistance, or flower color or shape. For example, New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) is normally 4-6′ tall but the nativar ‘Purple Dome’ grows to only about 2′.

Most (though not all) nativars for sale are produced as clones through cuttings or tissue culture – which is to say they are exact genetic duplicates of the original plant.

Swamp Milkweed
Swamp milkweed, species (pink) and nativar ‘Ice Ballet’ (white). “Ice Ballet’ is more compact.

I can understand about restorations, but I think the approach Wild Ones has taken to ‘nativars’ in home landscapes is counterproductive, though not entirely without merit. Concerns about nativars seem to fall into two general areas: 1) loss of genetic diversity, and 2) loss of plant traits most valuable to wildlife.

Genetic Diversity. If every individual of a given plant species is a clone, then of course genetic variation is lost. This severely compromises a species’ ability to adapt to new diseases or other threats. We have seen this play out in devastating blights of potatoes, bananas, and other agricultural crops.

Wild Bergamot, Bee Balm
Nativar ‘Raspberry Wine’ Bee Balm wih
straight species Wild Bergamot, a member of the same genus.

On the other hand, I suspect that you will not find the same kind of dominance by one variety in the garden as often occurs on the farm. For example, you can find dozens of nativars of New England Aster or of Bee Balm (Monarda didyma).

What’s more, non-sterile nativars in the garden will cross breed with other nativars and with the straight species. Nativars and other cultivars frequently do not “grow true” from seed set in the garden, meaning that the offspring are not simply duplicates of the parents.

And let’s not forget that the only hope of saving some native species, such as the American Elm (Ulmus americana) and American Chestnut (Castanea dentata), lies in disease-resistant cultivars created through scientific breeding programs.

Joe Pye weed nativar 'Gateway' with cup plant in the background. 'Gateway' has richer color than sweet Joe Pye weed, both in flowers and stems. Not quite so tall, also, and blooms later.
Joe Pye weed nativar ‘Gateway’. ‘Gateway’ has richer color than sweet Joe Pye weed, both in flowers and stems. Not quite so tall, also, and blooms later.

Wildlife Benefit. The nativar trait that is desirable to gardeners may render a plant less beneficial to wildlife. Some gardeners love double blooms (I don’t), but double blooms make life harder for foraging pollinators. What’s more, the genetic tradeoffs involved in achieving a more benign trait can result in the loss of characteristics valuable to wildlife, but this is harder to detect.

According to Douglas Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home, native plants’ most ecologically valuable trait consists of foliage with a leaf chemistry that is palatable to insects (who tend to be very picky about their leaves – who knew?). A diverse and healthy insect population is essential to a healthier environment, including bird populations as well as keeping destructive insects within bounds.

Tallamy, an entomologyst, has found that exotic plants support less insect life, and so he is a proponent of natives. In his book he applauds nativars as a way to expand use of natives by the gardening public, though the Wild Ones article quotes him expressing a preference for straight species.

Certainly if a nativar boasts that it is insect resistant, that is a pretty good sign that it has reduced wildlife value. But there doesn’t seem to be any scientific evidence that in general nativars provide less wildlife value than straight species native plants.

A Continuum of Practices. Which leads me to a more general reaction to the Wild Ones article. It seems to me there is a continuum of environmentally responsible gardening practices. Most gardeners would like to be responsible but many lack information.

Early sunflower prairie sun
Early Sunflower nativar’Prairie Sunset’. Tried the straight species and found it lacking. I like the purple stems and the darker flower centers of ‘Prairie Sunset’.

The mission of educational organizations like Wild Ones should be to nudge as many gardeners as possible up the continuum towards more sustainable methods. However, this requires recognizing that most people are more comfortable with incremental changes in their habits. If the choice seems to be between purity and the status quo, very few will opt for purity.

Advocates also need to recognize that most people garden primarily for aesthetic satisfaction, and not simply to save the environment. So putting on a frowny face of disapproval because someone plants Joe Pye Weed ‘Gateway’ rather than the straight species is not going to accomplish much. ‘Gateway’ is somewhat more compact and has a richer color – but living with ‘Gateway’ may expand a gardener’s appreciation of more wild straight species natives (making it a gateway plant! Ha!).

Anise Hyssop
Anise Hyssop, a straight species I love. Though I’m thinking of trying the nativar ‘Golden Jubilee’

I think a more productive educational message would tout the benefits of incorporating straight species plants in the garden, rather than arguing for straight species exclusively. Frankly, the same could be said for native plants in general. As much as I love natives, they are not now nor will they ever be the only plants in my garden.

Until we can establish a Commissar of Garden Plants (and I’m definitely available if that position is created!), native plant advocates should focus on promoting the incremental changes most likely to take hold among rank and file gardeners.

What do you think about using straight species versus nativars or cultivars? Or do you not really care about the origin of a plant as long as it is culturally well-adapted?

55 Comments on “Are ‘Nativars’ The Enemy?

  1. My gardens are all straight species native plants, but I realize that people with established gardens don’t want to rip everything out and start over. I have a power point program that shows how to mix natives with established gardens, called “If you aren’t quite ready to go all the way…..”

  2. As you know, I am also a proponent of native plants. Like you, I am not opposed to using a nativar either. I love Doug Tallamy’s book because he gives us proof why these natives are beneficial to nature. When people ask me about certain plants, I always tout the nature benefit. I want birds and bees and butterflies! When you explain the nature/native connection, they understand this. Most people just don’t think about it. It reminds me of the vegan/vegetarian argument. People can get so picky about stuff! I just get excited when people want to try gardening because of something I grew.

  3. Jason, I thinkyou nailed it with your comments regarding esthetics and gateway plants. There is a whole generation that has been slow topick up the garden trowel, being walaid by the Great Recession to home ownership. Their time has become more and more fractured. Beauty draws people to gardening. Sometimes the way “native gardening” is practiced make beauty hard to discern by beginners to the art. Not all native lanscapes hold the beauty of a Oudolf-designed or inspired landscape. An added note, he is a fond advocate of selections of American prairie natives, some of which he has also marketed.

    • I know Oudolf uses lots of American native cultivars, some of which he has developed himself. If only all landscapes look like his. Apparently he has a new book out which addresses the natives/exotics issue.

      • Jason, are you talking about the book “Plantings” he did with Noel Kinsbury? I recently read it and have been meaning to review it, It provided a lot of insight into his plant selection and arrangement. Not surprising, he has come up with his own ratio of flowering native to grasses which I believe accounts for the popularity if his plantings and which account for the visible aesthetic as well. In typical native plantings grasses are like something of 70% to 90%; his have only 20% to 30% grasses which makes for a less weed look. He also chooses a lot of planting in that middling height range.

  4. Great post, Jason. Eccellente explanation of native and variations. I’m not too fussy as long as pollinators also like my choice.

  5. “The mission of educational organizations like Wild Ones should be to nudge as many gardeners as possible up the continuum towards more sustainable methods.” You’ve distilled the argument here, and I think your incremental concept is likely to be the most successful. Thanks for this is thoughtful and well-reasoned post, Jason.

  6. I agree with you. We have to remember that it is not simply a case of straight species vs nativars. The “straight specie” Joe Pye weed that grows in the ditch next to my Ontario garden, is genetically different from the one that grows wild near your Chicago garden. Both are genetically different from more southern Joe Pye weeds. Nativars might tweak this great diversity, but that is about it.

  7. Thank you for this great post! I am a professional gardener and have a large straight species native garden in my personal garden. My partner and I have argued on this subject many times with him being straight species and me holding the view that nativars are better than some ornamentals for water use, durability, and to serve as a “gateway” to learning and caring more for their whole garden community, not just the aesthetics. Anyway thank you for the post I was wondering if there is a way to read the original Wild Ones article on the subject? I went to their site but am in my off season as a professional gardener and don’t have the extra money to spend on the membership, although I am stoked I learned about it as a resource and would love to join when business picks up again in spring! Thanks so much again, look forward to the article!

  8. What an interesting post. I like to go with native plants and try to grow most from seed. I grew hollyhocks from seed years ago. initially they were white but now, three generations later all sorts of colours pop up. I always try to consider wildlife too.xxx

  9. I like to grow both.

    I’ve gotten a lot of starts from wild plants here on the farm and I like them as much as any cultivar. The NC Botanical garden offers seeds, most from regular species plants although some are likely from cultivars. I’ve really been pleased with the resulting plants. In fact, I like the wild type purple coneflower over ‘Magnus’ — the color stays vibrant a lot longer. OTOH, I love Monarda ‘Raspberry ‘Wine’ and the bees do too. And my favorite baptisia is ‘Purple Smoke’.

    So I completely agree with your stance. Being too militant is not going to encourage people to use more natives, as you explained so well in your post.

    • I agree about the purple coneflowers, I much prefer the straight species. I haven’t grown Purple Smoke, I am satisfied with the straight Baptisia australis I have, but in pictures Purples Smoke does look really good.

  10. I guess it’s good to have a stand on these things since it gets people thinking about important issues, but protecting suitable land for these plants to live on is still a much bigger priority. Planting natives on your own property only does good, but in the long run people’s interests change, owners change, things happen and it’s just not the same as a protected ecosystem where evolution can keep going and species have a chance of adapting.
    Great post!

    • Thanks … but I do think that how people manage their little yards does have a major impact. There is far more land tied up in lawns and gardens than there will ever be in protected natural areas. I tend to think that shifts in what people do on their suburban plots can have a significant impact. That’s Tallamy’s argument anyway, and I tend to support it.

  11. I agree with Frank and have been arguing this point for years. It is not a matter of the home gardener being responsible, the issues are much greater. Too many planting native plants herald the cultivars (calling them natives) but don’t distinguish them as such. They treat them as one in the same. I always do differentiate for all the reasons you mentioned. I also agree with Alain to location. To worry about what is truly native is a waste of time as variations abound. I plant what the insects and birds need for food and shelter and will unlikely have true species in my garden because the cultivars are generally better behaved. Why else develop them? It is all about what people will buy.

    • Cultivars are developed because somebody can make money selling them. Not that there is anything wrong with making money, but we can grow all the native plants we want by planting seeds.

      • I think that is a little harsh. There are plant breeders who are driven by their love of plants as well as by the desire to make money. Also, cultivars improve the aesthetic value of plants in the eyes of at least some gardeners, just as a given variety of tomato can improve the eating pleasure of the vegetable gardener.

    • Donna, we have touched on this point before. As to the environmental significance of what the home gardener does, my view is set out above and we have different perspectives. However, I agree with you that it is misguided to argue against the use of cultivars of native species, just as I think it is unproductive to expect large numbers of people to use native species only.

  12. Interesting post Jason. I’m certainly no expert, but I have nothing against non-natives in my garden, as long as the bees and insects like them and they have no invasive tendencies. I think the situation may be slightly different in Europe as we have to accept that our climate is changing and there are constantly new threats such as new diseases and insects. Many of these, native to the warmer Mediterranean climate, are slowly moving north… so genetic diversity in plants is also good, isn’t it?

    • There doesn’t seem to be as much controversy in Europe over this topic. Perhaps because the Eurasian landmass is so big and plants have been migrating around it for so many centuries? We do have the same scary issues with climate change, though.

  13. Very educational post, Jason. I did not know about nativars nor realize there was a controversy. As a vegetable gardener, I understand the reasoning behind preserving heirloom varieties, but quite frankly have not had much luck growing them, so I plant what I like. My attitude applies to the rest of the yard (it’s my flower bed, I’ll plant what I wanna), but now I will pay more attention to just what I am planting.

    • Yeah, the heirloom tomatoes aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be, though sometimes they are delicious (black cherry – yum!).

  14. Well Jason, your incremental argument as you lay it out is just further proof you are certainly one of my most learned friends. I think Plant Delights could come up with a clever t-shirt about nativars. Their ‘Friends Don’t Let Friends Buy Annuals’ is 1/2 price right now. But I digress, very nice job, Jason. Most thought provoking post in months.

  15. Yikes, I’m in trouble. I just planted the nativar Aster ‘Vibrant Dome’ this fall. Although I have quite a mix of true natives, hybrids, and non-natives. I guess I’m moving more toward natives, but I’d have a major haul to rip out all the non-natives and nativars. One step at a time, I guess. Great post.

    • You’re not in trouble. And don’t yank out your plants unless they are making you unhappy. I also have a mix of natives, nativars, and exotic plants, and while the proportions may shift, all will continue to play key parts in the garden,.

  16. Great post, Jason! I guess I think of my garden as a balanced meal with ingredients from all the parts of the food pyramid. I think of natives and nativars as the base layer, with exotics as the top. Not to say that I’m a stickler for this particular balance, but it is something I know I should – and do – strive for. At this point, I’m probably a bit top-heavy on the exotics (that is if they survived last week’s temps! ), but the garden holds great variety, so there is plenty of buzzing and flitting around. As for the native v/s nativar dilemma – I almost always go for the one I like the best, regardless. Again – thanks for a great post.

  17. That is very interesting, Jason. Although I always have wildlife in mind I spare a thought for myself too and choose the odd plant which may not be such a magnet because I don’t want to be flattened by rules and one-sided views either. Gardening is about beauty too and my favourite style is a well balanced mix of the wild and the tame. Up to now it works perfect for all sides. Then again, I live in the middle of unspoilt nature and maybe it’s more “urgent” for those who are about to loose or have lost nature to provide a sanctuary?

  18. I find that navitars, cultivars, and genetically modified hybrids hold up much better than straight species to the clouds of insecticides, herbicides, napalm and agent orange that I use to control nature in my garden. If a leaf dares to droop, heavy applications of petroleum-based fertilizers and heavy irrigation perk things right up. I mean really, they’re gardens and therefore unnatural anyway, right?

  19. Enjoyed reading this post Jason. One thing I’ve noticed over here is that a lot more independent plant nurseries now have much larger native sections than they ever had. This could be a sign that the message is finally getting through to the home gardeners. Although the larger chains do lack such choice.
    Personally, I have a mix and tend to choose plants that benefit wildlife in some way or another. I live on the doorstep of a small area that has been designated a Site of Natural Conservation. This offers a wider range than I could ever personally hope to achieve in my own garden but like to do my ‘bit’!

    • I’d say that native cultivars are becoming fairly common here at the big box stores. This may not be as ideal as straight species, but it’s better than a selection consisting entirely of exotics.

  20. I use nativars and cultivars and try to let folks know their names when I can remember. I think we do have to educate folks and give them some steps to start to incorporate natives…I try to add the species which can be harder to find. I am trying to make a habitat for wildlife so if they like my nativars I find them acceptable over non-natives that do not perform or have any wildlife value.

    • I think in most cases the nativars do just as well as the natives in attracting wildlife, though apparently there are a few exceptions.

  21. I will echo what the other readers said – this is a terrific post. I totally get the importance of natives and I do grow many, but like you I think it is counterproductive to be so rigid about natives vs. nativars and even well-behaved exotics. All it does is alienate people who might otherwise come to love gardening. And, come to think of it, even some who already do love gardening. I consider myself a responsible, informed gardener and I am getting a bit weary of hearing that everything I do is wrong. I hope you’ll consider doing a post on the whole concept of what constitutes a native. What’s native to the southwest U.S. is not native to the southeast U.S., after all. So how do you define native?

    • There is controversy about what is native, or what is “native enough”. Maybe I’ll try to tackle the subject, thanks for the idea.

  22. A native plant is one that grew in one’s area prior to European settlement in the early 1800’s.

    A wonderful book that lists and provides a drawing of every plant that grows “wild” or spontaneously in our area is “Kane County Wild Plants & Natural Areas” by Dick Young, former Environmental Director of Kane County for 35 years. It is now available through Amazon.

    Less than 1/3 of the 1400+ plant species recorded as part of the Kane County flora are non-native, but more than 90% of all plants growing here are foreign introductions. Eurasian plants are more tolerant of disturbance and human activity and tend to crowd out native plants.

    Planting neighboring corridors of native plants for animals to travel through is a good thing. Other services that native prairie plants provide are deep roots–literally 15′ deep that provide passage ways to infiltrate water, which makes the plants drought-resistant and prevents flooding.

  23. If I only grew native plants here in York UK I would not be able to use your own native plants such a Joe Pye weed that seeds all over my garden

  24. I have the same philosophy as you Jason, and have been planting and growing natives for over 12 years now. During that time I have changed the way I garden with natives; I used to grow only species and now I am much more accommodating. Many nativars do well in the garden and contribute in much the same way as the straight species. I once considered myself a purist native plant enthusiast but found it limiting and unrealistic. The garden itself is not a natural thing, we create it to give ourselves pleasure. So if I want to include a nativar or an exotic from some other area of the world in my mostly native garden, I do so now.

    • I sometimes get on a natives-only kick, but I can never stick with it. It is just too limiting. It’s like I know my diet would be healthier if I were a vegetarian but I am unwilling to give up meat. However, I do place special emphasis on native plants, and really love to grow them.

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