More Grist for the Natives versus Nativars Debate

Recently, the blog Humane Gardener published an interesting interview with Vermont ecological garden designer Annie White. For her doctoral research, White had conducted an experiment to determine whether pollinators had preferences for straight species native plants as opposed to named cultivars bred from native plants – “nativars”.

Straight species Purple Coneflower

Her results were mixed. For seven of the twelve species tested, pollinators had a clear preference for the straight species. For four of the species, there was no difference between the cultivar and the straight species in terms of pollinator attraction.

And in one case, pollinators actually preferred the cultivar to the straight species.

Purple Coneflower cultivar ‘Pink Double Delight’

Here are the specific plants tested by White:

The following plants showed a significant pollinator preference for the straight species over the cultivars:

  • Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) v E. purpurea ‘White Swan’, ‘Big Sky’, and ‘Pink Double Delight’.
  • New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) v S. novae-angliae ‘Alma Potschke’.
  • Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) v A. foeniculum ‘Golden Jubilee’.
  • Blue Wild Indigo (Baptisia australis) v B. australis ‘Twilite Prairieblues’.
  • Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) v H. autumnale ‘Moerheim Beauty’.
  • Ohio Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) v T. ohiensis ‘Red Grape’.
  • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) v A. millefolium ‘Strawberry Seduction’.
DSC_0488 bumblebee butterflyweed
Bumblebee on Butterflyweed

With the following plants pollinators were attracted equally to straight species and cultivars.

  • Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) v A. tuberosa ‘Hello Yellow’.
  • Smooth Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis) v P. digitalis ‘Husker Red’.
  • Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) v M. fistulosa ‘Claire Grace’.
  • Orange Coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida) v R. fulgida ‘Goldsturm’.

And finally, pollinators preferred the cultivar ‘Lavendelturm’ to the straight species Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum).

What to make of all this? Well, if you want to have a pollinator-friendly garden, you should have a mix of straight species and cultivars. It’s not necessary to have straight species only.

2014-09-28 15.39.51 new england aster with metallic green bee
New England Aster with Metallic Green Bee

In fact, in her interview Annie White says that she uses cultivars of native species, because sometimes you really want those people-pleasing qualities, especially more compact habit

Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule to determine which cultivars are most welcoming to pollinators. It’s generally thought that the greater the change in flower shape (for example, double flowers), the less welcoming a cultivar will be to pollinators.

Smooth Penstemon
Smooth Penstemon ‘Husker Red’

However, the New England Aster variety ‘Alma Potschke’ changed only the color of the flower and not the shape, yet still saw a dramatic drop in visits from pollinators. So you never know.

In our garden, we have a mix of native straight species, cultivars, and exotic plants. We have no plans to change that, but will always try to maintain a substantial presence for the straight species natives.

You can read the Annie White interview here. You can read her research here.

That’s all for now.

37 Comments on “More Grist for the Natives versus Nativars Debate

  1. I have a mix also in my garden of straight species and cultivars. My echinacea are mostly the straight species. Moerheim Beauty is also a favourite of mine, and popular with the bees. Finally I have some butterflies in my garden.

    • I planted one ‘Moerheim Beauty’ this spring. I like the flower. Haven’t yet observed how attractive it is to pollinators.

  2. I think my garden is somehow pollinator-friendly. But nevertheless I keep this plant list in my mind.

  3. I can say Jason, if you want to have tasty honey it have to be collected from the meadow flowers. It’s a fact. My garden is pollinator-friendly, there are many wild flowers around it.

  4. Something got to my purple coneflowers and they shriveled up. I’ve been battling thrips and aphids this year so I suppose they could have had a sneak attack. Bees are loving the hosta flowers.

    • Sad about the Coneflowers. When I grew Purple Coneflowers I don’t remember big problems with aphids, but as I wrote, aster yellows did them in.

  5. Interesting! I am still going for the “me pleasers” which include plants for pollinators and wildlife. There is plenty to learn, try and experiment with. Thanks for the info.

  6. My garden is all mixed up. I have lots of both natives and non. If you watch you can see some of this report and other species not reported in your garden when you have both. A good article. Thank for bringing this to our attention.

  7. Interesting research; thanks for sharing it. With the intense heat I am seeing less pollinators except for the huge Carpenter bees which are everywhere in the garden.

  8. I’m quite fond of the “straight” natives, but also grow cultivars, though most have been around for years. I think in my own situation it’s the natives that are preferred, but native bees (more than butterflies) work the cultivars. Great post and photos.

  9. Interesting piece. It’s good to know that pollinators are not purists.

  10. Interesting & informative post.–Thank you! I, too, grow a mix, but try to lean more toward the natives rather than “nativars.” I’m going to the fall bulb sale in Tyler this year to buy bulbs. I know the Native Plant Society of Texas will have tables there, and I plan to scope them out for additional natives.

  11. How interesting. I’d be quite curious to see more about the pollinators visiting the plants too. For instance, are they all native too and are they ‘niche’ pollinators?

  12. I have a mix, but like the bees, I do have a real preference for Echinacea purpurea. I wonder what it was about the Aster color that put the bees off. I’ve hard that flowers sometimes change color once they’ve been pollinated. Maybe there was something about this aster’s particular color that made the bees think it had already been pollinated and wouldn’t have any pollen or nectar.

    • That’s a good theory about the New England Aster, sounds like a good research project. I agree with you about E. purpurea – I really prefer the straight species for overall performance. Though I haven’t grown any for quite a while.

  13. Very informative. Thanks, Jason. I feel less guilty because I’m not a “natives” purist and have nativars and all sorts of other flora.
    Oh, there was a monarch on my tithonia this morning. Was able to get a photo. Great excitement!

  14. Such information is important these days but back when I was gardening professionally no one really gave a thought to insects. They planted what they liked and that was that.
    I’m glad times have changed.

  15. Great research to share: choosing “nativars” or even plants of the same genus but different species…and no longer locally native, with better habits has it’s place. No surprise pollinators often see no difference. Personally, I have no pet plants!

  16. Interesting research, and I think we have a mix in our garden, but are getting great rewards from natives in recent years.

  17. PS Jason and Judy, thanks for your interesting posts and photos, even though I’m gardening in opposite seasons, I’ve learnt a lot from your blog…it’s like having my own gardening magazine through email..!

  18. What a great post!

    Glad to read the article that you linked. Of course, cultivars that are closer to their native relatives are going to be better for pollinators than the more extreme versions (that’s from my plant ecologist background), but I was also interested in the very few that flowered longer (so produced nectar and pollen longer, too.)

    A recent trip to the dentist had me distracted watching numerous tiger swallowtails visiting Buddleia out the window, too — not a bad thing, even though Buddleias are problematic.

  19. Jason, I grew aster ‘Alma Potschke’ in my garden for the first time last year and the absence of pollinators on its flowers was striking. On the other hand, the bees were all over another aster “nativar,” Symphyiotrichum laeve ‘Bluebird.’ I collected some seed from local wild New England asters so that I can have the straight species in my garden; they’ll get included in next year’s Front Slope project. Many of the Echinaceas that have been, in Bill Cullina’s words, “poodled” don’t have any nectar or pollen because their sex parts have been turned into petals.

    • Your experience with ‘Alma Potschke’ is interesting. As with ‘Bluebird’, I have seen some cultivars draw oodles of pollinators.

  20. Particularly, but not limited to, the case of coneflowers, I prefer the species far more than their overbred monstrosities. I find cultivars such as “Pink Double Delight” repulsive and steer well away from them. I think the garden looks more natural and less “synthetic” in turn.

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