Your views on 'native' cultivars?

cranebillOctober 13, 2006


What a great idea for a forum! My pulse speeds up any time I'm in the vicinity of a good debate, even if it's only as a spectator.

This is mostly intended for natural habitat gardeners, I guess. I recently debated with a natural habitat advocate the use of cultivars of otherwise native species of forbs and shrubs. She runs a biannual native plant sale at my church, and I recently helped out with the fall sale. She surprised my by ordering mostly cultivars of the various species we offered for sale. (If anyone is interested, you can email me for the plant list.)

I'm not a native habitat gardener, mostly because my own city property is really quite small and I haven't got the space, and also because there are too many ornamentals I wish to plant. (I do plant as many natives as I can, though, and I've never used any chemical controls, so I do get a wonderful array of unusual birds and bugs, and a few mammals like chipmunks, bats, and a skunk that arrives precisely at the same time every night as if she's carrying a pocket watch.) The native habitat lady has her own partially wooded, largish property planted almost exclusively with "natives," but many of these are in fact cultivars. Her philosophy, based on her discussions with an ecologist she knows, is that critters will feed and breed on native cultivars the same as they would on the more "native" natives, so in most cases they're fine. She's an especially avid fan of the butterflies they draw, it seems.

All this leaves an unresolved issue, though: even if the cultivars have little or no impact on fauna, aren't they potential or even likely invasives to the native flora realm? Her apparent lack of concern about this possibility puzzles me, as she is constantly complaining about having to rip out acres of vinca and driving truckloads of burning bush debris to the local public composting facility, so she is quite sensitive to the concept of invasiveness. I'm planning to resume the debate with her at our next work party, tomorrow, while we limb up some more of the church's yews.

It would be great to learn which side you debaters come in on, and what you have to say.



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    Bookmark   October 14, 2006 at 7:42PM
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Cranebill, I'm very interested in natural habitat but I'm not sure what we are debating. I volunteer at a wetland restoration project where we re-introduce native plants. Are you debating it's a bad thing? A good thing? I have a few acres of my own on which I've planted food sources for wildlife but not all my plantings have been natives. Is this what you mean? I'm not a purest, I simply enjoy birds and butterflies and have a place where I can attract them.

    Bookmark   October 23, 2006 at 5:13PM
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This has come to light in recent years.
There are what we call "native nazis" who insist that only very local plants are what they consider native and everything else doesn't count.
For instance Amalanchier x grandiflora 'Autumn blaze' would not be considered native as a serviceberry hybrid by some. Then again others would consider it native. A native nazi would not order a red maple grown in Georgia and plant in in Alabama.

As for could native species become invasive... yes I believe they most certainly can however they are generally well adapted to a specific area and there are natural controls in place such as predators, pests, diseases to keep it under control. Not so in the case of Juniperus virginia in some midatlantic and plains states however and definitely not the case of Black locust.

I personally think the use of natives take out a lot of the guesswork in determining a plant's (or animal's) invasive potential however. So for me I could plant a DED resistant cultivar of American Elm for instance and still call it native. And I consider trees not immediately found growing around me to be native also provided it's hardy in my area. (Example: Honeylocust) I do prefer natives but I'm not strictly native. It just so happens my favorite plants are native anyway. I could care less about wildlife habitat in my yard and to be honest I'd prefer the wildlife eat and poop elsewhere.

I am very opinionated on the subject of invasive species. And I'm strongly opposed to their sale and cultivation. That's a topic for another day.

    Bookmark   October 23, 2006 at 5:36PM
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One theory often mentioned is that cultivars are genetically identical clones, so they lack the genetic differences from one individual to the next that helps a population survive disease and pest attacks.

Also, when a species is hybridized to improve its characteristics from a human perspective (usually appearance-larger, more colorful flowers) something unseen is often lost in the breeding process, like nectar production, seed nutrition or other factors that we cannot even forsee.

These factors are important if you are naturescaping or restoring a natural system, not so critical for the typical ornamental garden.

    Bookmark   October 23, 2006 at 6:07PM
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Thanks for the new vocabulary words. Native Nazi;~) I guess the NLI (Natural Land Institute) who are reclaiming wetlands and other natural prairies in this area are NNs.

On my own land I please myself. I've planted hundreds of native and non-native species mostly as food sources for wildlife. I enjoy both fauna and flora and hope they come in mass to poop on my property. Horror of horrors, I even have a bird feeding station.

Here is a link that might be useful: NLI

    Bookmark   October 24, 2006 at 10:53AM
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Native nazi isn't a term that I use. I shouldn't have used the word "we" in that sentence but it's a term that's floating around to describe some of the politics and attitudes in municipal plantings and so forth. Some people are quite anal in plant selection. Not to mention the native/non-native/alien plant debate sounds eerily similar to immigration debates and .... dare I say klan rallies.

I really think the strictly native yards are really impressive. It's possible to use only local natives right down to the turfgrass and it's challenging to find a lot of the plants and arrange them tastefully but when someone does it's cool. Some native plant societies even have contests for this. Probably the reason it appeals to me is that there is some self-reliance element to this if you find/dig your own native plants.

    Bookmark   October 24, 2006 at 11:04AM
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I thought digging natives was a crime punishable by death. My father hammered that into our heads for years. But really, what chance did natives have in the wild in our very agricultural area currently at war with non natives like garlic mustard. We were lucky to have a nursery close by that catered to people wanting to plant native prairie plants and trees--Ellisons.

I agree with you on the political aspects. It's a global world, like it or not. The days when the natives can survive the onslaught of introduced species are gone. ItÂs great that organizations have the money and resources to create small slices of original plants and animals. Living museums that cost a fortune to maintain.

Trying to landscape with only them. That has to be a challenge. They are always understated when compared to the hybrids. So often they just fade away after bloom leaving a bare spot until next season. Or they are prone to disease. Our prairies are fabulous in bloom and there are a great cultivars from prairie lands but the hybridizers have Âimproved them all.

    Bookmark   October 24, 2006 at 4:17PM
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