Column: Investigating plants cultivated from native species

Jane Bloodworth Rowe [Courtesy]

VIRGINIA BEACH — I recently read Douglas Tallamy’s Nature’s Best Hope, and I have to admit that I was a bit underwhelmed.

Tallamy, a professor of agriculture and natural resources at the University of Delaware, is a well-respected scholar, but this book is filled with recycled ideas that have been around for decades.

Tallamy’s premise is native plants are preferable and have too often been displaced by cultivars. That’s not groundbreaking. By now, I think that most people are aware it’s best to grow native plants when possible because they attract pollinators and provide a habitat for wildlife. 

Tallamy did introduce a term that intrigued me, though, and that is “nativar,” or plants that have been cultivated from native species. I was familiar with this concept but not this term, and I didn’t know if this cultivation was a good or bad thing environmentally. Tallamy noted that some nativars are desirable and some should be avoided, but he didn’t elaborate.

I decided to dig a little deeper by checking some of my local sources, and what I learned enlightened and surprised me. Chesapeake Extension Agent Michael Andruczyk defined a nativar as a plant that was propagated asexually from a wild plant for the purpose of marketing. They’re often labelled “native” in nurseries and have the same scientific name as their wild cousins. A consumer can spot a nativar by noting if there is a catchy nickname in quotation marks after the scientific name. 

Nativars aren’t necessarily all bad, but there are a few things to consider. Many plants we think of as being native are cultivated. For example, inkberry “shamrock” holly is a cultivated variety of the native inkberry. Like other cultivated plants, it’s bred because its compact size fits more neatly into suburban and urban landscapes.

“Wild plants have variability,” Andruczyk told me. “One may be tall and one may be short, so they’ve been propagated for certain characteristics.”

Just because a plant is labelled “native” doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s native to Southeastern Virginia. The term is used for plants native to North America. When aiming for purity, Andruczyk suggests checking a reliable source. He recommends the app “Native Flora of Virginia.” However, it can become confusing. With climate change, plants have migrated northward and some wild plants previously associated with the Deep South have moved into this area.

Nativars aren’t necessarily bad. Plants that were propagated for size usually still have the characteristics, such as color or scent, that attract pollinators and birds. The more compact plants can also become positive enablers for urban and suburban gardeners because they fit more neatly into small spaces or sometimes even into containers.

Cultivation may alter the scent, color or shape of flowers. Native maples are wonderful, but the Japanese maples, although lovely, may not be recognizable to our local insects. Even some oak leaf hydrangeas may have been cultivated, and these nativars might not produce as much nectar. Other nativars may not produce seeds or may have such tiny clusters of flowers that it is difficult for birds or insects to drink from them.

From my own often-failed attempts, I’ve learned that not all native plants are real happy in all landscaped yards. Our local terrain varies widely, and some native plants grow in dry, sandy, sun-drenched areas, while others are happiest in wet, shady swamps.

My advice is to consider your own soil texture and sunlight exposure before you plant. The Hampton Roads Agriculture Research and Extension Center at 1444 Diamond Springs Road features gardens that are grown in sandy, wet, or shady environments. 

If you’re shopping for native pollinators, remember to check the plant’s label, as well as its color, fragrance, and the size and shape of its flowers. Apps such as “Native Flora of Virginia” also help, and Virginia Cooperative Extension can provide information online at

The author is a contributor to The Independent News. Her journalism has also appeared in The Virginian-Pilot.

© 2020 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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