Nativars in Your Wildlife Garden

"Ice Ballet' butterfly weed

“Ice Ballet’ milkweed

Do nativars, cultivars of native plants, have a place in your wildlife garden? They do in mine. And also in many of the gardens I design for my clients. Sometimes, a cultivated variety of a native plant can be easier to combine in a garden. Let’s face it, not everyone has space for purple Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) that can grow to 7′ tall or more in their garden. But they may be able to grow the more compact cultivar ‘Gateway’ (Eupatorium purpureum subsp. maculatum ‘Gateway’). It still reaches heights of 4′ – 5′ though, so compact is clearly a relative term.

The Issues with Nativars

Nativars, whether open-pollinated or hybridized, are chosen by growers because they offer something new and different – flower or leaf color, a more compact growth habit or  improved disease resistance. While they may perform better in your garden, they may not offer all the ecological benefits that straight species plants offer. And relying solely on nativars can mean less genetic diversity in your garden. And depending on what’s ‘new & improved’ about your nativar, it could mean nectar and pollen is not available or that leaf chemistry has been altered so much that they are no longer of any benefit to insects.

'Fireworks' goldenrod

‘Fireworks’ goldenrod

Is it better to not plant a native plant than it is to plant a  nativar? Does the use of native plants have to be an all or nothing proposition? My sense is that there are as many answers to that questions as there are gardeners. I won’t go into all the issues surrounding nativars since the topic has been expertly explored already in by Sue Sweeney in The Nativar Dilemma.

As wildlife gardeners, we want plants that are colorful, bloom for a long time, look good in our gardens and nourish the local wildlife. The heart of the issue with nativars is whether or not they really are acceptable alternatives to the native species for insects and small animals that feed on plants.  The answer is sometimes, but not always. Frankly, we’ll never know the answer for each and every nativar that seems to popping up on the nursery benches lately.

Fortunately, there ‘s a great deal of research happening now comparing straight species plants to many of their cultivars. Here are some of the studies I’m keeping my eye on. Some are evaluating the vigor and garden-worthiness of nativars while others are evaluating the pollinator value of cultivars.

Pollinator Studies

Mt. Cuba Center – Observing Pollinators on Annual Coreopsis

Penn State Extension – Pollinator Plant Trials

University of Vermont – Evaluation of 14 Native Species and Nativars

Vigor Studies

Mt. Cuba Center – Aster Evaluation

Mt. Cuba Center – Baptisia Evaluation

Mt. Cuba Center – Echinacea Evaluation

University of Vermont – Echinacea Hardiness

While waiting for the research results to be published, I tend to err on the side of caution. This philosophy is best summed up by fellow NP&WG team member Vincent Vizachero in his post Native Cultivars – Good, Bad & Ugly, … my first choice will always be a locally-sourced open-pollinated seed-grown plant.  My second choice will be a cultivar that maintains the flower shape, berry size, and leaf color of the species. My goal is to never buy cultivars that exhibit radically different flower shape or color, but I will knowingly buy dwarf varieties which are otherwise similar to the species. And when I see a cultivar touted as resistant to insect damage, that one gets an automatic rejection.

Are you watching any nativar evaluation trials in your area?


© 2013, Debbie Roberts. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. Hendrica says

    Debbie, if you are choosing nativars because they are more compact or colorful aren’t you just an ornamental gardener, not a wildlife gardener? I’m glad you err on the side of caution and as long as both native plants and pollinators are in decline I don’t think we can be too strict about sticking with the seed-grown species.
    Wild Ones recently published their ‘Position Statement on Nativars’, see

    • Vincent Vizachero says

      It’s too bad that Wild Ones positions statement is so poorly drafted. It contains a number of inaccurate statements and faulty conclusions.

      It looks like the committee that produced the position could have used a few experts.

    • Debbie Roberts says

      Hendrica, I am apologetically both a wildlife gardener and an ornamental gardener! I’ve built my garden design practice on that philosophy and feel it’s time for gardeners to realize they can have both – a beautiful, lush, colorful, regionally-appropriate and inviting garden that nourishes the local wildlife at the same time it nourishes their gardening souls.
      Debbie Roberts recently posted..Garden Designers Roundtable ~ Journey

      • Marilyn says

        Debbie, I don’t think you need to be apologetic about what you are. As someone new to the concept of wildlife gardening, I learned some valuable pointers about wildlife gardening from this post. From the comments section, I learned something about differences in wildlife gardeners.

  2. Jim Hitz says

    I would tend to disagree with your ‘Nativar’ article. There are plenty of natives to choose from and wanting something different is how we got to such a terrible state. Rather than trying new cultivars and then waiting to see there effects on wildlife, why not force the industry to prove their worth and ‘no harm to nature’ tests before tempting the public?

    • Debbie Roberts says

      Jim, I agree with you but unfortunately we do not live in an ideal world where a plants’ ecological impact is known before it hits the nursery benches. Given that reality, I think it’s very important to educate gardeners on how to choose appropriate plants when they go to the garden center. It’s sad but many of them will never find a straight species native plant but they will probably run across some nativars. IMO, helping gardeners understand how to evaluate plants for not only their ornamental value but also their ecological value is a worthwhile and positive first step.
      Debbie Roberts recently posted..Garden Designers Roundtable ~ Journey

  3. Donna@GardensEyeView says

    Lots to consider Debbie, but I have to agree that local natives first, then close cultivars.
    Donna@GardensEyeView recently posted..Dreaming in the February Garden



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