Cake and Cultivars

I was working on something entirely different, but thought better of it. I’d like to continue Bert’s (now Dr. Mister Smartypants) really intriguing discussion.

Because when I read it, I felt a pang of…guilt? Confusion?

I’d describe my usual perspective on the “native” topic as ultra-liberal, highly plant-introduction-centric. New plant? Gimme!!! (“Native” shall appear in this post surrounded by quotes throughout, as a safety measure.)

Commenter Wes perceptively noted “part of the gardening public is becoming so enamored with the concept
of natives that I think they are grasping at straws to to assuage their
belief in ecological principal. In my opinion, many want to have their
cake and eat it too.”  As a card-carrying member of the gardening public, yes, I do like using “native” plants, there is some portion of “feel good” to it, and I adore it when a hot new cultivar is also a “native”. And many breeders, propagators, growers, and garden centers would like to assist me with this.

A good example:  the “American Beauties Native Plants” program from a large propagation nursery in Pennsylvania. Some straight species, lots of cultivars, all with marketing materials to match (tags, pots, banners).
Has “Big Plant Introduction and Branding” (really, not that big or scary an entity) co-opted “native”?  Discuss.

Finally, some advice, please:  in our campus garden, we’ve nearly an acre of new plantings in a meadow style that consists of lots of cultivars and some interspecific hybrids; all of “native” plants (even the freakin’ buffalo grass is a cultivar). How in the heck should I refer to these plants, let alone the entire concept, in our educational/interpretive materials?  Any and all suggestions will be considered.

18 thoughts on “Cake and Cultivars”

  1. Even a cultivar of a native plant species is valuable for sustaining the population of native insects (most of which are unable to survive or reproduce successfully on non-native plants).

    Cultivars of native species should be described as cultivars of native species. We can debate their ecological value all we want, but if the species is native and the plant is a cultivar of that species, then the description “cultivar of a native species” remains accurate.

  2. I do like the term “nativar” – I think coined by Armitage. To clarify…can we call it a “Native Meadow Garden” (that’d be no, based on Bert’s definition) or…the “Cultivars of Natives Meadow Garden”. Bert, I wish upon you the joys of garden directorship some day…

  3. I agree with Gayle that the designation ‘cultivar of native species’ is apt. It may seem like splitting hairs, but this is preferable to ‘native cultivar’. The implication in the latter is that this is something that arose ‘naturally’ on its own. Other than aspens, willows and a few other exceptions, most trees and shrubs don’t have the capacity to clone themselves across broad areas. The public needs to be aware that there are attributes that go along with cultivars that may not be what they intend when they select a native plant. Further, I would argue that a cultivar of a native is not necessarily equivalent to real thing in terms of interactions with insects and other organisms. We know, for example, that Douglas-firs from the Shuswap lake seed source in British Columbia are completely resistance to Rhabdocline needlecast, whereas Douglas-fir from other seed sources can be heavily defoliated. I don’t know the mechanism of resistance (not sure anyon
    e does) but it almost certainly involves differences in plant biochemistry among provenances within the species. This is essentially the same argument that Doug Tallamy and others make for not planting alien species.

  4. I too like “nativar”. I’m also a fan of “asexually propagated natural variant of a native species”, but that’s not as user friendly. Holly, I’d call it a “native meadow garden” and encourage discussion. No matter how narrowly someone defines “native”, it’s not narrow enough to suit everyone.

  5. Personally, I’m fine with your native garden designation. I assume you have some in there that aren’t cultivars. My main point is that there are a lot of simplistic, naïve, and inaccurate statements that are made in the push for natives. If people are interested in promoting natives on ecological grounds then they need to understand all the implications.

  6. But aren’t some natives, even if cultivars, better for supporting native insects (and in turn birds and many other native things) than non-natives? I think cultivars are okay, especially if they talk/ease others into planting more natives as opposed to less. I definitely draw the line at restoration projects, no cultivars. And I always think more education on the subject for everyone is a good idea.

  7. Not necessarily. Tree improvement foresters spend a lot of time conducting provenance trials. Why? Because they recognize that seed source is huge. Not only for growth rate, but for insect and disease resistance as well. Both are often tied to biochemical defenses. If you don’t know the original seed source, you cannot say that native insects or fungi will ‘see’ the cultivar as the same as plants from the native population.

  8. The problem with using natives of local provenance is that they are seldom available. You could procure them from plants rescued from sites destined for development. But some species do not transplant successfully and this probably would not work for rare species that you would like to increase. Growing plants from seed procured locally and marketed only to that area is difficult to do as a profitable venture. So then you could run your own nursery. This is what Mt. Rainier National Park does with the help of a troop of volunteers. An individual would have difficulty running a seed propagation facility.

  9. Good stuff, y’all. Bert, I give talks featuring natives to MG and garden club groups and I always spend a good deal of time defining and explaining provenance, pointing at maps,and raising the issues associated with calling cultivars of natives “native” – how it isn’t as simple as plopping a “wildlife-friendly” stick tag in a pot – something slightly akin to “greenwashing”. But I do also understand things from the commercial grower side. I think I wrote this post in empathy with all the perplexed folks out there, plus I really am about to embark on creating some signage and am hoping for some ideas.

  10. Exactly. Thank you, VG. From an ecological perspective, unless you’re going to go full bore into ecosystem restoration, scattering a few cultivars of native species of unknown provenance (that may or may not have evolved locally) around the landscape is probably not going to matter a hill o’ beans (although, as Wes noted, it may help to assuage some guilt). If we want to plant things that look like they belong in the local, natural environment; to give us a ‘sense of place’, I’m all for it. In fact, while Tallamy essentially dismisses the ‘sense of place’ argument, I think this is probably one of the best rationales for planting natives or cultivars of native species.

  11. Holly, I think our posts are a little out of sync. – I go off in the corner and type in WORD so I have spell-checker and then paste into the post. I’m certainly not the final arbiter of native plant nomenclature. Certainly ‘cultivar of native species’ is incontrovertible. Or ‘Red sunset’ maple, a cultivar of our native red maple.

  12. Thanks for a great discussion. “Nativar” is a little too cutesy for my tastes (sorry, Holly, VG), so I’d vote for “Cultivar of Native Species”, or maybe finesse the issue altogether and just label accurately (Genus species ‘cultivar’), and call it a “Wildflower Meadow” and adjust the explanatory speech depending on the audience. I also find when it comes to accurate labeling, that ‘spp’ covers a multitude of sins. Without letting the better be the enemy of the good, cultivars of a native species that are well-behaved, increase the chance of them being planted in urban and suburban environments. The average homeowner would rarely have the space for native goldenrods (Solidago spp.), but the better behaved dwarf versions still add a welcome late season nectar source for pollinators and beneficial insects. ‘Lemon Queen’ (H. pauciflorus var. subrhomboideus x H. tuberosus – Google is my friend) is another example, certainly better behaved than the H. maximiliani, and H. tuberosa, which has totally dominated my perennial vegetable area, even though I harvest two 5 gallon buckets of sun chokes annually. I’m glad I don’t need much rhubarb and horseradish. For restoration efforts, there’s a “Growing Native” annual initiative here in our local area, wherein volunteers from the Watershed organizations, supported by Pennsylvania’s Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) collect native hardwood seeds, which are donated to state nurseries, and used to restore streamside forests along the Potomac and its tributaries. We also get great support from the Forestry Dept. at Penn State, Mont Alto.

  13. The gold standard for ecological restoration is using seed grown plants from seeds harvested from local wild functional ecosystems. These systems are sometimes difficult to find. Because of the characteristics of isolated habitats, some species may not have a lot of genetic diversity. It is also possible that populations that have been isolated for very long may have experienced genetic drift from the larger gene pool . Might these species be improved by bringing more genes into the mix? How far is too far to be considered local? In this time where fractured habitats are the norm perhaps the gold standard should be reconsidered.

  14. I had no idea I was so profound. But I really need to clarify that I am by far, not a “Native Purist”. I just think that those who vehemently advocate “Native Only” approaches do need to be aware that cultivars of natives are at least somewhat suspect technically speaking. It really gets under my skin when I’m preached at… Know what I mean, Vern?

  15. Wes: bonus points for the Jim Varney reference!!!

    Ray: We do have everything properly labeled. And lots (and lots) of ‘Lemon Queen’. Thanks for adding your take on this and what it means for the home gardener or landscape designer, not necessarily restoration ecology or population biology. I’ve had a nagging feeling that never the twain shall meet…(VG hits the quandary on the head with “how far is “local”.)

  16. Wes: bonus points for the Jim Varney reference!!!

    Ray: We do have everything properly labeled. And lots (and lots) of ‘Lemon Queen’. Thanks for adding your take on this and what it means for the home gardener or landscape designer, not necessarily restoration ecology or population biology. I’ve had a nagging feeling that never the twain shall meet…(VG hits the quandary on the head with “how far is “local”.)

  17. I volunteer with Idaho Fish & Game collecting seeds and planting burned out areas. If a burned out area on a south facing slope at 4,500′ elevation is slated for planting, seeds are collected on the nearest non-burned south facing slope at 4,500′. I don’t know about messing with genetic diversity, but it’s better to give native plants a foothold after a fire before cheat grass completely fills in. I agree with previous comments about cultivars of natives sometimes being more appropriate for home landscapes. I planted a Amelanchier alnifolia ‘autumn brilliance’ and the birds have no complaints about the fruits. Leaf cutter bees use the leaves as well. It’s much taller than the native serviceberry and provides privacy for our patio.

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