Native Cultivar vs. Straight Species Native Plants

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hummingbird gathering nectar from a large red flower

Ok, so you’ve heard the word that native plants are “in,” and you need more of them in your garden. But what about native cultivars vs. straight species native plants? Research in this burgeoning field is in its early stages, but there are results worth noting. We’ll break down each of these terms to help you decide which is better for your landscape.

What is a native plant?

A native plant is a plant whose ancestors have lived in and adapted to the local area over hundreds or thousands of years. These plants reproduce naturally and remain unaltered by human plant breeding.

Native plants have adapted to local weather patterns, such as rainfall and drought; high and low temperatures; and soil conditions. In other words, they’re right at home in your area.

What are cultivars and species?

Before we get into why native cultivars and straight species matter, let’s define a few terms.

Cultivar

Who needs two words when one will do? Cultivar is short for cultivated variety

Most cultivars are a result of intentional plant breeding efforts by humans, by cross-pollinating or genetic modification (the latter is only used on a few food crops at this time). Why? To develop characteristics that make the plant more beautiful or hardy, such as: 

  • Flower color
  • Disease resistance
  • Leaf color or variegation
  • Temperature hardiness
  • Growth habit (height, width, branching)
  • Size or shape of the flower or plant

Some native cultivars are the result of open-pollination or natural mutation, not human breeding.  

Straight species

This is a native plant that you’d find in the wild or directly descended from a wild plant. It has not been altered by human plant breeding and is open-pollinated.

Example: 

  • Asclepias tuberosa (Butterfly weed)
  • Echinacea purpurea (Purple coneflower)
  • Aster novae-angliae (New England aster)

Native cultivar

A native cultivar is a plant that is native to your area but has been cultivated (see definition above) by humans for a desirable trait(s). You could think of it as a cultivar of a native.

Native plant cultivars are often called nativars for short. (Botanists clearly prefer one word over two.)

Example: 

  • Asclepias tuberosa “Hello Yellow”
  • Echinacea purpurea “White Swan”
  • Aster novae-angliae “Alma Pötschke”

Why does it matter?

Why all the hubbub? Researchers, including respected University of Delaware entomologist Doug Tallamy and University of Vermont graduate and landscape architect Annie White, have produced intriguing research that asks the question, “How do local insects interact with straight species native plants vs. native cultivars?” 

The answers are complex and need further research. However, based on recent research by Tallamy and White, pollinators and insect herbivores show a preference for straight, unaltered species most of the time.

Here are a few more things to consider about the differences between nativars and straight species native plants.

Biodiversity

Straight species cultivars are a boon both to local genetic diversity and biodiversity, while native cultivars produce more of a cookie-cutter plant. Nativars are bred when humans cross-pollinate native plants and then propagate them, which is done vegetatively via cuttings, division, or tissue culture. This means each plant is a clone of the parent plant. Open-pollinated plants, such as straight species natives, are not clones and provide greater genetic diversity among the species and for local ecosystems. 

This genetic variability strengthens the species because the genetic differences give it a wide base from which to draw over time. Clones have less genetic diversity and are more susceptible to being wiped out by disease, weather, or adverse conditions. Local insects, which we rely on to pollinate one-third of our crops, in turn, rely on a resilient ecosystem of plants for food, nesting sites, and shelter.

Food for insects and wildlife

Straight species, in general, are your best bet. However, there is other research to consider if you can’t always find straight species. 

Recent research by Tallamy shows that among 10 varieties of woody plants and a nativar equivalent, nativars with altered leaf color (purple, red, or blue leaves) had less insect consumption than native plants with unaltered leaf color. Nativars with variegated leaves had greater amounts of insect consumption than non-variegated leaves on the straight species. 

Other studies that have looked at insect feeding and variegated leaves have reached different conclusions, however. The researchers in Tallamy’s study hypothesized that this may have been necessary for the insects to receive an adequate amount of nutrition, since variegated leaves have less chlorophyll. 

Conclusion: Choose natives or nativars with unaltered leaf color, as insects seem to favor these over plants with altered leaf color.

Research by White has shown that nativars that most closely resemble straight species are more likely to be valued by local pollinators than those with different characteristics. Use nativars cautiously and avoid plants with these traits:

  • Additional petals (when compared to straight species)
  • Double flowers 
  • Leaves that are not green 
  • Bloom or fruit at different times than straight species 

Additional petals and double flowers, for example, often make it difficult or impossible for pollinators to collect nectar or pollen. In some of these nativars, the structures that contain pollen and nectar are not present.

Similarly, some nativars are sterile, which means that they do not provide fruits or seeds for birds or pollinators to eat. Keep these tips in mind if you are designing a pollinator-friendly garden.

Conclusion: Stick with straight species, or with nativars that closely resemble them, for the highest wildlife value and ecological function.

Pro Tip: Ensure your plants have not been treated with neonicotinoids or insecticides. Research is ongoing as to how or if these chemicals affect pollinator populations.

Stick with native and natural plants

Native plants, whether nativars or straight species, almost always win the day over non-native plants. Don’t worry, though. You don’t have to eliminate nativars or non-native plants completely. 

Stay away from flowers with the traits mentioned above (double flowers and so forth), and incorporate plants with a natural leaf color for the best results. And ask other local native enthusiasts which plants attract pollinators in their garden.

More research is needed to explore this topic, but for now, let the preliminary research guide your plant decisions.

FAQ about nativars and straight species native plants

1. How do I stay up to date with the latest research?

Sign up for email alerts
Local, state, and national organizations often send out regular newsletters to inform you of new exhibits, plant sales, and educational opportunities. 

Webinars are a popular form of education these days. Not only can you learn from the comfort of your own home, but you’ll likely learn from state and national (or international) experts. It’s one of the easiest ways to keep learning and stay engaged with the science of the day. Sign up so you won’t miss out!

Follow on social media
If you don’t see an email option on their webpage, like, subscribe, and hit that notification bell to follow them on social media.

Get involved
Get connected with local gardens, nature centers, or societies (see FAQ #2 for more ideas) to keep your head “in the game.” 

Read
If you love to curl up with a good book after a long day in the garden, there are plenty on native plants. Check them out from your local library or borrow a few from a gardening friend.

2. Where can I buy native plants?

Some common places to buy native plants include:

Your state’s native plant society
Local chapters have at least two sales per year — spring and fall. They are the experts on native plants in your area, so check out their website for details on their plant sales.

Local, independent garden centers
Increased demand means your local nursery industry wants a slice of the native plant pie. Many local growers are starting to carry more native plant species to cater to customer demand.

Local nature centers
Some nature centers have plant sales as fundraisers. If not, they can point you to a local place that will. 

State and local botanical gardens and arboretums
Many states have more than one botanical garden or arboretum. They are committed to education and local ecology, and many will have plant sales to encourage homeowners to plant native in their landscape.

Tree nurseries
Don’t forget about native trees! Some tree societies have native tree sales at least once per year.

Science centers
Science centers encourage hands-on learning. What better way to learn about local ecosystems than to encourage a healthy ecology in your own front yard? Check their website or call to inquire.

Local colleges and universities
Science departments and student science clubs often hold plant sales to fundraise and encourage healthy ecosystems in their community. Interested in volunteering? If your local college or university has a Tree Campus or Bee Campus USA designation, they may be more likely to have volunteer or learning opportunities available for citizen-scientists like yourself.

3. May I collect native plants from the wild?

Unless you participate in a plant rescue field trip with a local plant society, the answer is usually no. Taking plants from the wild is almost never a good idea: 1) It is illegal in many areas, and 2) it may do ecological harm. 

Native plants and wildflowers that are removed illegally can alter the balance of plants and insects that exist in that area and leave room for invasive species or weeds to take over. The USDA Forest Service offers collection permits on a limited basis. Check with your local District Office for more information.

If you’re too busy sourcing native plants for your new pollinator garden, let one of our local lawn care pros take lawn mowing off your to-do list. 

Main Photo Credit: Veronika_Andrews | Pixabay

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