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What's the deal with cultivars?

You may have noticed a particular line in our bio that says we grow only straight species, no ‘cultivars’. This is one of the fundamental tenets on which we are building this business, and we’d like to explain why!


Let’s begin by gaining an understanding of what a cultivar is and what it means ecologically.


A cultivar is, true to its name, a cultivated variety. A human takes a plant that has a desirable characteristic and propagates that plant, creating multiple copies. These aren’t considered “babies” as there is no reproduction involved, rather, these are all clones of the original plant. Oftentimes the clones are also sterile, and the only means of making more plants with that characteristic is through cuttings, grafting, or tissue cultures. Cultivars are not grown from seed, as doing so would result in genetic diversity, producing different characteristics as occurs in the wild.


You can easily tell when a plant is a cultivar because it has been given a name, one that is enclosed in single quotations. ‘Sunset Hydrangea’, ‘Purple People Eater’, ‘Dayglo Bikini’…you get the idea. A nursery tag would have the botanical name and variety, sometimes common name, and the ‘cultivar’. When you see a name in single quotes, you know that this plant is an exact copy of the original plant.


What does this mean ecologically?


Just about everyone can agree that genetic diversity is a very good thing. In this case, genetic diversity comes from plant reproduction, that is to say, grown from seed the way Nature intended. Simply put, cultivars reduce genetic diversity. You could fill an entire field with the most glorious cultivar flower, and you would have succeeded in creating a sterile environment. More of the plant does not equal better, in this case. On the other hand, if you had a native variety, let’s take the ubiquitous Echinacea purpurea, and sowed an entire field with seed gathered from multiple plants, you would have yourself a lovely plot of genetic diversity, with some natural hybrids appearing and disappearing over generations. I’d be willing to wager you’d have some hecka happy bees and butterflies hanging around as well. If we are looking to support wildlife and be ecologically friendly, it does make sense to use the plants that are known to best support local fauna.


Are cultivars a bad thing?


Here’s where people get caught in the weeds. Cultivars are not automatically “bad” or to be avoided out of the gate. Unless you are a native plant purist there is no reason to avoid having your favorite plant (or few) in your yard. What does matter is that you try to find a balance between cultivars and straight native species. There is no real formula to it, but as Dr. Doug Tallamy says, “We need to balance the number of decorative plants in our gardens with plants that are contributing in ecologically important ways; otherwise, we will have beautiful but sterile landscapes…Every time that you add a productive native plant to your landscape you improve your local food web” (https://www.finegardening.com/article/ask-the-expert-doug-tallamy).


There is some emerging evidence that many cultivars do not support wildlife to the same degree that straight species do, even if the cultivar is derived from a native plant (colloquially known as a “nativar”). Studies have shown that depending on the characteristic manipulated, cultivars can hold little to no value for pollinators or other insects. To add to the confusing aspect, this does not mean that you won’t see pollinators visiting your garden center plants. What you won’t see are the large numbers of native insects that specialize on native plants. (That’s a post for another day!) Now, to be fair, some cultivars do not have this effect, and in fact can be quite beneficial. The work being done to the American Chestnut tree comes to mind. Other characteristics that can be manipulated with seemingly little effect on ecological value include stem thickness, plant height, and moisture tolerance. Essentially, so long as you leave the blossoms and leaves alone, the cultivar shouldn’t have a negative impact ecologically. Dr. Annie White’s research shows how cultivars that have been bred for enhanced blooms, color, and other characteristics do not support pollinators in the way native straight species do. You can dive into her work through this fantastic video, “How Native Plant Cultivars Affect Pollinators.”


So why, if having some cultivars isn’t inherently bad, are we not carrying any in our nursery?


Finding straight species native plants is hard and oftentimes expensive. Many garden centers in the area will carry a handful of natives, but you will be hard pressed to find ones that are not cultivars. We have decided to stick to that line in the sand as part of our effort to increase accessibility of the straight species, without having to buy thousands of dollars’ worth of plugs from a wholesaler. We won’t shame you for wanting to keep your mother’s favorite rose bush, but we will encourage you to install a whole bunch of native plants around your yard.


Native plants for LIFE!





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