Natives vs. nativars: The need for both

Features - Plants

How researchers and plant breeders distinguish them, and what it means for your plant sales and marketing.

December 7, 2017

Echinacea purpurea ‘Showoff’
Intrinsic Perennial Gardens

Enthusiasm for habitat and pollinator gardening has ignited new interest in native plants as consumers discover relationships between gardens and the wildlife they support. Straight native species aren’t the only plant options in the limelight. Ornamental native plant cultivars, increasingly referred to as “nativars,” are gaining attention, too. But that popularity comes with a few questions. Having your staff ready with answers can help both you and your customers reach native and nativar goals.

What is a nativar?

It’s been a decade since Allan Armitage coined the term “nativar” to refer to cultivated varieties of native plants. In its early years, some native plant purists co-opted the label as a way to distinguish cultivars from what they saw as more worthy “true natives.” It took a few years, but that usage lost its steam. The gardening public is embracing the nativar label and the plants it represents.

Melding “native” and “cultivar” into a single catchy title has helped reconnect longstanding landscape stalwarts such as Echinacea purpurea 'Magnus' and Rudbeckia fulgida 'Goldsturm’ with the habitat movement and breathe new life into their native roots. At the same time, the native connection is fueling stunning new introductions that give plant lovers the best of natives and ornamentals combined.

Plant breeder and introducer Brent Horvath, owner of Illinois-based Intrinsic Perennial Gardens, is head over heels for nativars. He points first to their hardiness and then to the wide range of native plant variability that opens the door to vast ornamental potential. Native grasses, which have given life to several Horvath nativar introductions, epitomize the diversity in height, form, in-season leaf color, and fall color found in native species.

“I just love that variability. I love looking at all those possibilities, and I love putting together new plants – new nativars,” he explains.

For Horvath, and many native plant growers, cultivation doesn’t disqualify nativars from native status. The true distinction between the two comes back to variability for him. Once selected, nativars generally are vegetatively propagated, while a native stand maintains its natural diversity.

“I don’t think it makes it any less native,” Horvath says. “It just happens to be selected for a showier or better attribute, but they’re still definitely native plants.”

Do nativars fill a special need?

Greenscape Gardens & Gifts in the St. Louis, Missouri, area has undergone a metamorphosis under the guidance of general manager Jennifer Schamber. With what she calls “mission-based merchandising,” the IGC founded by her parents has become a hub for native plants, habitat gardening and pollinator initiatives. The IGC takes its customer-driven ecological mission to heart, and that means taking native plants and habitat issues seriously. They even have one greenhouse devoted to host plants, such as native milkweed for monarch caterpillars.

Researchers found that nativar Lobelia cardinalis ‘Black Truffle’ produced as much nectar and attracted as many pollinators as its native parent’s blooms.
top: Intrinsic Perennial Gardens; bottom: North Creek Nurseries

Greenscape’s extensive collection of straight native species occupies its own greenhouse area, separate from all other plants at the IGC. It also takes natives a few steps farther than common IGC offerings.

“Our native species are wild-collected, locally grown, and very precisely grown for this area. We pay close attention to ecotypes,” Schamber says. “That is really important to us that we maintain that clear messaging.”

Greenscape’s native plant customers are very well informed. But even with this refined focus on local native species, nativars play an important role.

“We have this huge need for nativars, and the reason is there’s not always something native that fits the description, for example, to maybe fit a smaller garden,” Schamber explains. “So in that case, we move customers into nativars.”

The IGC’s general philosophy is, if there’s a native to fit the need, always offer it first. But when a local native species doesn’t fit the bill, nativars are next. Like Greenscape’s native plants, native cultivars get their own area, complete with “nativar” signage to help customers make and maintain the native connection.

Not just any nativar makes the cut at Greenscape. Schamber is particular about what nativars the IGC offers.

“The main thing we look for is that it has some sort of ecological service. Whether it is drought tolerant or beneficial to pollinators, the nativar needs to have some sort of purpose,” Schamber explains.

What about insects and pollinators?

With habitat gardening behind much native and nativar interest, one question comes up frequently: Do nativars provide the same ecological functions and benefits as straight native species? University of Delaware professor Dr. Doug Tallamy, the de facto spokesperson for habitat gardening, used to answer that inquiry with, “We don’t know.” Several research programs have tackled the question, and Tallamy has shifted his response to, “It depends.”

Andropogon gerardii ‘Red October’

In a study led by Tallamy, University of Delaware graduate student Emily Baisden focused on leaf-eating insects and native cultivars in gardenlike settings. The not-yet-published research yielded interesting results about leaf-eating insects and their native versus nativar preferences. The study compared natives and nativars differing on six key traits: changed leaf color, disease resistance, enhanced fall color, enhanced fruiting, altered growth habit, and variegation. Tallamy notes the study removed any doubt that red or purple leaves discourage insect herbivores. However, other results were mixed. Insects sometimes preferred nativars over natives and vice versa. Sometimes the leaf-eaters preferred both equally.

Other research that has focused on pollinators also held intriguing results. Tallamy points to work by Vermont researcher Annie White on pollinator responses to nativars and natives. White’s research revealed the farther nativars differed from their parent species, the less attractive they become to pollinators. But many nativars proved good pollinator plants. For example, pollinators preferred yellow-flowering Asclepias tuberosa ‘Hello Yellow’ equally to its orange-flowering native parent. The lavender-flowered nativar Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Lavender Towers’ was more popular with pollinators than the white-flowered native. The deep-red flowers atop chocolatey foliage of Lobelia cardinalis 'Black Truffle' drew as many pollinators and produced as much nectar as its native parent’s blooms.

Pollinators preferred Asclepias tuberosa ‘Hello Yellow’ equally to its native parent, which has orange flowers, according to new, unpublished research out of the University of Delaware.
North Creek Nurseries

“Much more research needs to be done,” he says.

At Greenscape, Schamber expects interest in ecology, natives and nativars to continue to grow, driven by consumer advocates of every age group.

“It becomes a mission and gives meaning to what they’re doing now. It just adds a whole new dimension,” she explains. “People catch on and get excited. What has been sort of two dimensional is now 3-D.”

By understanding and celebrating the native-nativar connection, you can help your landscape and IGC customers embrace the concept and boost sales.

Jolene is a freelance writer and former horticulture professional based in Wisconsin’s Driftless area. Reach her at