With the recent increased interest in native plants, we feel it’s important to bring Nativars into the conversation. First, a definition. The term was coined by renowned horticulturist Dr. Allan Armitage to describe a cultivar or hybrid derived from a native plant. In other words, offspring of a native plant that has been selected or bred for particular desirable characteristics. Most frequently, these characteristics are those that make a plant better suited to a garden setting; features such as smaller stature, denser growth habit, disease resistance, stronger stems, increased flower production, dark or variegated foliage, and unusual flower color or flower form.
The Importance of Natives
Native plants are beloved by gardeners primarily because of the important role they play in our local ecosystems as sources of food and shelter for our native birds and beneficial insects. Since they all evolved together, they are intricately linked and interdependent. A gardener can have a tremendous positive influence on populations of native songbirds and beneficial insects simply by transitioning all or part of their property to native plants arranged in naturalized planting designs.
The Role of Nativars
For those gardening on a small plot of land, or who desire a more traditional garden appearance, there might be a preference for slightly more refined plants than the “wild” appearance of many native plants. This is where Nativars can fill an important niche.
Same Benefits as Natives?
There is ongoing research to determine if Nativars provide the same benefits as true natives. While it is too early to definitively evaluate results, evidence so far points to a “yes”. Beneficial pollinators visit the flowers of Nativars at roughly the same rate as they visit the flowers of natives. In some cases, there is even a preference for the Nativar. Beneficial insects will feed on the foliage of nativars also to the same degree that they feed on native plants. Songbirds, who rely on insects to feed their young, then benefit equally from nativars and true natives.
There are, however, exceptions. There appear to be three genetic changes that negatively effect the desirability of Nativars to our native beneficial insects. These are:
Dark Colored Foliage – When the chlorophyll that produces green leaf color is replaced by anthocyanins that produce red or dark leaf color.
Fully Double Flowers – When the flower shape is changed to multiple petalled form or altered in shape so that insects are unable to access nectar.
Multiple Genetic Changes – When multiple genetic changes are made to a single plant (e.g. a shorter plant with variegated foliage and flowers of a different color).
Examples of Nativars
There are a plethora of very nice Nativars available to the gardener.
The many color forms of purple coneflower (Echinacea)
Color range, disease resistance and dwarf habit in Beebalm (Monarda)
Increased flowering and shorter stature in Turtlehead (Chelone)
Improved flower color and reduced height in Joe-Pye-Weed (Eupatorium)
Color range, improved flower production and more compact habit in False Indigo (Baptisia)
Disease resistance in Black-Eyed-Susan (Rudbeckia)
Reduced height in Blazing Star/Gayfeather (Liatris)