More Grist for the Natives versus Nativars Debate

Recently, the blog Humane Gardener published an interesting interview with Vermont ecological garden designer Annie White. For her doctoral research, White had conducted an experiment to determine whether pollinators had preferences for straight species native plants as opposed to named cultivars bred from native plants – “nativars”.

Straight species Purple Coneflower

Her results were mixed. For seven of the twelve species tested, pollinators had a clear preference for the straight species. For four of the species, there was no difference between the cultivar and the straight species in terms of pollinator attraction.

And in one case, pollinators actually preferred the cultivar to the straight species.

Purple Coneflower cultivar ‘Pink Double Delight’

Here are the specific plants tested by White:

The following plants showed a significant pollinator preference for the straight species over the cultivars:

  • Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) v E. purpurea ‘White Swan’, ‘Big Sky’, and ‘Pink Double Delight’.
  • New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) v S. novae-angliae ‘Alma Potschke’.
  • Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) v A. foeniculum ‘Golden Jubilee’.
  • Blue Wild Indigo (Baptisia australis) v B. australis ‘Twilite Prairieblues’.
  • Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) v H. autumnale ‘Moerheim Beauty’.
  • Ohio Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) v T. ohiensis ‘Red Grape’.
  • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) v A. millefolium ‘Strawberry Seduction’.
DSC_0488 bumblebee butterflyweed
Bumblebee on Butterflyweed

With the following plants pollinators were attracted equally to straight species and cultivars.

  • Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) v A. tuberosa ‘Hello Yellow’.
  • Smooth Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis) v P. digitalis ‘Husker Red’.
  • Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) v M. fistulosa ‘Claire Grace’.
  • Orange Coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida) v R. fulgida ‘Goldsturm’.

And finally, pollinators preferred the cultivar ‘Lavendelturm’ to the straight species Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum).

What to make of all this? Well, if you want to have a pollinator-friendly garden, you should have a mix of straight species and cultivars. It’s not necessary to have straight species only.

2014-09-28 15.39.51 new england aster with metallic green bee
New England Aster with Metallic Green Bee

In fact, in her interview Annie White says that she uses cultivars of native species, because sometimes you really want those people-pleasing qualities, especially more compact habit

Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule to determine which cultivars are most welcoming to pollinators. It’s generally thought that the greater the change in flower shape (for example, double flowers), the less welcoming a cultivar will be to pollinators.

Smooth Penstemon
Smooth Penstemon ‘Husker Red’

However, the New England Aster variety ‘Alma Potschke’ changed only the color of the flower and not the shape, yet still saw a dramatic drop in visits from pollinators. So you never know.

In our garden, we have a mix of native straight species, cultivars, and exotic plants. We have no plans to change that, but will always try to maintain a substantial presence for the straight species natives.

You can read the Annie White interview here. You can read her research here.

That’s all for now.

37 Comments on “More Grist for the Natives versus Nativars Debate”

  1. I have a mix also in my garden of straight species and cultivars. My echinacea are mostly the straight species. Moerheim Beauty is also a favourite of mine, and popular with the bees. Finally I have some butterflies in my garden.

  2. I’m quite fond of the “straight” natives, but also grow cultivars, though most have been around for years. I think in my own situation it’s the natives that are preferred, but native bees (more than butterflies) work the cultivars. Great post and photos.

  3. Interesting & informative post.–Thank you! I, too, grow a mix, but try to lean more toward the natives rather than “nativars.” I’m going to the fall bulb sale in Tyler this year to buy bulbs. I know the Native Plant Society of Texas will have tables there, and I plan to scope them out for additional natives.

  4. I have a mix, but like the bees, I do have a real preference for Echinacea purpurea. I wonder what it was about the Aster color that put the bees off. I’ve hard that flowers sometimes change color once they’ve been pollinated. Maybe there was something about this aster’s particular color that made the bees think it had already been pollinated and wouldn’t have any pollen or nectar.

  5. Very informative. Thanks, Jason. I feel less guilty because I’m not a “natives” purist and have nativars and all sorts of other flora.
    Oh, there was a monarch on my tithonia this morning. Was able to get a photo. Great excitement!

  6. What a great post!

    Glad to read the article that you linked. Of course, cultivars that are closer to their native relatives are going to be better for pollinators than the more extreme versions (that’s from my plant ecologist background), but I was also interested in the very few that flowered longer (so produced nectar and pollen longer, too.)

    A recent trip to the dentist had me distracted watching numerous tiger swallowtails visiting Buddleia out the window, too — not a bad thing, even though Buddleias are problematic.

  7. Jason, I grew aster ‘Alma Potschke’ in my garden for the first time last year and the absence of pollinators on its flowers was striking. On the other hand, the bees were all over another aster “nativar,” Symphyiotrichum laeve ‘Bluebird.’ I collected some seed from local wild New England asters so that I can have the straight species in my garden; they’ll get included in next year’s Front Slope project. Many of the Echinaceas that have been, in Bill Cullina’s words, “poodled” don’t have any nectar or pollen because their sex parts have been turned into petals.

  8. Particularly, but not limited to, the case of coneflowers, I prefer the species far more than their overbred monstrosities. I find cultivars such as “Pink Double Delight” repulsive and steer well away from them. I think the garden looks more natural and less “synthetic” in turn.

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