By Fran Stallings
Many gardeners and landscapers have become interested in growing native plants, as we learn more about the importance of our natives as hosts and food sources for pollinators and other important insects. But some wild plants grow taller and leggier than we'd like, or have a short blooming period, or come in limited colors. How can we welcome them in our gardens?
Plant breeders are eager to provide us with selectively bred “cultivars” (cultivated varieties) of our native plants. These are called “nativars,” not a scientific term but a handy designation on the label at the nursery. You may find its common name and sometimes its scientific name, plus the nativar's trade name in single quotes, and sometimes numbers indicating that it has a Plant Patent. For instance, Eastern Redbud Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy' (PP#22,297), a nativar with purple leaves.
Sometimes breeders work with naturally occurring variants such as the occasional yellow clump of orange butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), producing a pure yellow line which they have named 'Hello Yellow.' Orange coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida var sulliventii) often grew tall and floppy; the nativar 'Goldsturm' is more compact, has larger flowers, and a longer bloom time. By crossing different species of Echinacea together and selectively breeding the offspring, breeders have produced neatly clumping varieties with red, orange, white, yellow, even pale green petals and nicer shapes. Some are so double they look like pompoms rather than daisies!
You can have your natives and your neat colorful garden too! Win/win.
But the selectively bred nativars are not always as beneficial to wildlife as the wild types. Researchers have found that pollinators aren't as attracted to the alternate colors of some nativar blooms. Super-doubles, as on E. purpurea 'Meteor,' provide less landing room than single flowers. Highly bred varieties may lack fragrance or have less nectar or pollen.
Meanwhile, the foliage of some nativars can be less appealing to the caterpillars of desirable butterflies or to the larvae that song birds need as baby food for their chicks. White-variegated foliage risks being less nutritious than plain green. Red/purple foliage gets its color from anthocyanins, that Doug Tallamy warns are feeding deterrents.
So we can appreciate the work plant breeders have done to provide variations that appeal to us humans. But if we're planting with wildlife in mind, we might prefer to select the original wild types.
For more details, see https://landscapearchitecturemagazine.org/2019/07/02/whats-in-a-nativar/