Now it’s Cultivar Shaming?

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Admittedly, mentioning a trivial controversy in the gardening world today – with everything that’s happening!! – seems ridiculous, but that’s exactly what I thought when I saw this graphic posted to a local gardening Facebook group.

And accompanying the graphic, this text:

Recently, I spent the weekend on a property with a lot of native cultivars and there were no pollinators on those plants.

Buy from your native plant society and you’ll get the true species. Or find a native plant nursery that grows the straight species!

EXCELLENT ARTICLE HERE.  The big nurseries will mostly or only have cultivars. Your native plant society will sell the straight species. Find yours here:.

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First, “Just say no” is most famously what Nancy Reagan said about drugs. I was fine with that, and I’m fine with “Just say no to racism” and anything else that’s actually consequential.

So are cultivars of native plants SO bad that we must “Just say no” to them? To quote another First Lady, “Give me a f*** break!”

My actual response to the post on Facebook was: “I’ll speak up for one cultivar – ‘Little Joe’ Joe Pye Weed. It’s short enough to fit in my tiny garden and is a pollinator MAGNET. The straight species MAY be even better, but I wouldn’t buy it for my garden. So thanks, breeders!”

My point being that insistence on purity can be self-defeating, another example of the perfect being the enemy of the good.

A couple of commenters supported the attack on cultivars, but most did not. Some examples:

  • “I think it’s more complicated than ‘native good cultivar bad.’ Even the linked article mentions that some cultivars are better for wildlife than the native species.”
  • “Is this a 100% true fact? Pollinators will not, ever, use cultivars as a food source? Or is this over-hyped propaganda of some kind?”
  • “Balanced – it depends. Some cultivars are more beneficial than others. There is ongoing research on specific native cultivars, or nativars, and which provide benefits that are equal or greater than the wild type, and which are worse. I personally try to stick to locally sourced natives when possible, but also have some nativars such as hello yellow butterfly milkweed and phlox Jeanna.”

18 COMMENTS

  1. The way to discourage new gardeners: Make things complicated.

    None of us learn anything in one fell swoop and the purpose of gardening isn’t likely to be the same for any two of us anyway. I tend to stop listening when the “all or none” attitude rears its ugly head.

  2. There you go Elizabeth, more gardening memes making everything super simple. Except it’s not. This new religion is so tedious I’m having a hard time finding the energy to find the words to reply. Thankfully Kylee said it perfectly and I don’t have to. LOL.

  3. I can relate to that. Here in California, where the native plant movement is somewhat of a mania, this bizarre story was reported by the Chronicle. Apparently, someone planted the “wrong” poppy in the Presidio or it migrated there. The poppy that is native to the Presidio is small and yellow. This “alien” poppy is the large orange poppy that most of us consider the classic California poppy. It is readily available everywhere. The historical record indicates that this classic poppy grew elsewhere in San Francisco, but since it didn’t grow in the Presidio it must be removed because the Presidio’s Vegetation Management Plan “contains the requirement to remove any plants that could jeopardize the integrity of the genetics of native plants in the Presidio.”

    How is the gardener supposed to know exactly which variety of a native plant “belongs” in San Francisco or even in a specific neighborhood within San Francisco, such as the Presidio? And, in the unlikely event that gardeners might have such esoteric knowledge, where would they get the seeds of this specific variety? The local chapter of the native plant society acknowledges this practical obstacle, but advises gardeners to get their seeds and plants only from the annual plant sale of the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society. One wonders how many gardeners will follow this rather restrictive advice.

    The suggestion that bees will shun the “wrong” poppy because it didn’t live there in 1769, is beyond belief. You can’t make this stuff up.

  4. Nope. I think a dose of reality is in order. Many gardeners do not have the room, the desire or ability to manage large, undisciplined natives. I live in an HOA community and grow lots of well-behaved natives. Also grow ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ and love it.

  5. If anyone is up for my presentation Native Plants: Facts and Fallacies where I dissect all the bullshit, let me know! Native purists choose dogma over wildlife and I’m damned sick of it!

  6. Its a bummer that the takeaway is either/or from this, and that pollinators are the only thing to consider. Most pollinators are generalists. Its really much more about the baby food. Larvae don’t like dark colored leaves. I adore dark-leaved cultivars, like the many beautiful ninebarks, but I also plant the species. Larval host plants are important for the baby insects and important for the baby birds. But when one side is considered purist and another side just reacts, important info goes unheard. Why not plant a nice mix of both?

  7. Think looking at emerging research helps to move this tired conversation away from it’s polarized extremes. Mt Cuba Center and Annie White in Vermont have started to evaluate nativars in terms of its attractiveness to pollinators. Some like Phlox ‘Jeana’ were better than straight species to Swallowtails (higher nectar). Others like double Echinaceas were total crap. The farther breeding pulls these away from their evolved forms, in general, the lower value to fauna. This research to me indicates that breeding is not inherently good or bad from an ecological point of view. What if we bred natives not for some unnatural color (red Double echinaceas), but for increased pollen or nectar? Super pollinators? We did this with human food, making it more productive and feeding the planet. I personally wish articles like this would not throw fuel on one side of the fire, but thoughtfully get beyond entrenched positions.

  8. I completely disregard the nazis now that I am starting to garden again. Used to be interested only in pureblood native species but that has gone out the window. I save seeds from straight species or cultivars or sometimes hybrids and then plant those seeds knowing they will likely seek the lowest genetic level. That is fine with me.

    • The Nazis killed millions of people. It is reprehenisible that you are equating people who advocate for native plants with them. You owe the readership of this column an apology. Please think more carefully about your language before you post public comments.

  9. Back in the 1980’s when I was in college, there was a HUGE debate of ‘native versus introduced species’ regarding Eucalyptus trees in Berkeley. One of my college professors was in on the debate being an anthropologist and having said 5 trees that were going to be destroyed because they ‘weren’t considered’ native. So the point became, “what is truly native, anyway?” The trees according to Professor Rosen had adapted over a 5 lifetime generation to include oils that the Australian species didn’t have; the oils were unique to the trees in the area. Their leaf formation and the amount of volatiles in their leaves were significantly different than varieties from Australia, as well as how the bark splits from the limbs and base of the tree. Everything about these plants indicated that they had evolved uniquely to their environment making them nativized to that area, the rain fall that the area received, the type of soil they were being planted in, the PH of the soil, and this list goes on. The animals are habituated to that grove, the insects have developed to fit this grove and right down to the companion plants that grow in this area are unique to the specific development of these Eucaliptus trees. This is known as a micro ecosystem. So are these trees now ‘wrong?’ How is it they haven’t adapted to their environment? And how are Cultivars any different in our gardens if we make sure to plant just the right balance? Enjoy the garden, garden with love and support of our bees and just do the best you can.

    • We must be neighbors. I have witnessed this crusade against eucalyptus in California and have reacted much as you have. The basic flaw in nativism in the natural world is a lack of understanding of evolution and adaptation. When native plant advocates make extravagant claims about the dependence of wildlife on “native” plant species, they are ignoring the rapid adaptation of insects to new plant species that are often closely related to native species. Nativism in the natural world assumes that species are immutable. Of course, nothing in the natural world is immutable. Change is the only constant in nature.

      Eucalyptus in California is essential to all pollinators because it flowers for 6 months during the winter months when little else is blooming. Eucalyptus is particularly important to monarchs. 75% of migrating monarchs in California spend the winter months roosting in eucalyptus trees that are being destroyed by zealots.

  10. Completely agree with Thomas Rainer that this is a “tired conversation”. Studies are ongoing but seem to indicate that there are many nativars that are just as valuable to wildlife as straight species. I have a mix of natives, nativars, non-natives, invasives and (heavens!) hybrids in my two acre garden, and it includes major larval food species like Oak, Virginia Creeper, Fennel, etc. The place is alive with birds, insects and amphibians all year long, and I’m guilt free. Less dogma please, and more planting!

    • Yes, that observation is consistent with research about the cause of declining insect populations. Those studies consider habitat loss the primary cause and pesticide use secondary to it. “Invasive” species are a distant third, but most studies are referring to insects when discussing the causes of native extinctions of both plants and insects. Studies usually mention climate change as a looming factor that is expected to become increasingly important.

      Ironically, many people who wish to blame non-native species for declining insect populations are complicit in their loss because herbicides are commonly used to eradicate non-native plants.

  11. From across the pond in England we look on in amusement and bemusement at polarised American debates. Over here, we plant whatever we want, where we want; and have some of the best gardens and gardeners on the planet.

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