Why We Plant "True Species" Native Plants, Not Cultivars

Native cultivars, sometimes called “nativars,” are patented plants. Once the plant breeder is satisfied—with the double flower, the altered color, or whatever characteristic is being cultivated for—the plant is named, patented and marketed, then genetically identical plants are mass produced for sale. These plants will have a brand name in single quotation marks after the genus and species names, e.g. Echinacea purpurea ‘Double Decker’ (pictured, with its freakish second set of ray flowers sticking out of the cones).

Echinacea purpurea ‘Double Decker’

Echinacea purpurea ‘Double Decker’

Once on the shelf at the garden center, a cultivar is a brand-name product whose royalties flow to the breeder for as long as that cultivar sells. Combine this with many gardeners’ tendency to seek novelty and you’ve got the production/consumption pressures that ensure a steady stream of new ornamental cultivars showing up for sale. 

So, what’s the problem with all these cultivars? We have a number of objections to cultivars of native plants. Here are a few: 

Pollen and nectar availability. When a flower with a differently sized, colored, or shaped flower is bred from a native plant, the insects that evolved specialized mouthparts for that plant or responses to its visual cues such as nectar guides, the insect may no longer be able to recognize the plant or be able to reach its nectar and/or pollen. Cultivars often have less pollen and nectar to in the first place, and double flowers, none at all. 

Less seed for birds. Many cultivars are sterile, offering nothing in the way of seed to sustain for wildlife.

Caterpillar impact. Research has shown that when foliage color is changed to red or purple, normal insect feeding is significantly reduced. For other traits, such s disease resistance, insect feeding is increased. So we know that changes in leaf chemistry affect insect eating patterns. We say leaf chemistry changes may very well affect insect health and development—and we’d like to see research on that, too.

Constricted genetic diversity. As the climate changes, survival of plants may depend in part on having the flexibility to adapt through genetic diversity. Genetically identical cultivars represent an impoverishment of a species’ gene pool, and individual cultivars—which have been bred to express a narrowed set of traits—are less able to adapt to environmental stresses.

Contamination of the gene pool. Some cultivars can cross-breed with wild plants, contaminating the wild gene pool with their tampered-with genes.

There are other reasons we avoid cultivars of native plants, but we’ll just add this: so many of these designer plants are simply freakish-looking to us. If insects could talk to us, we imagine they’d say, “Whoah, what is THAT!” upon encountering some of these cultivars.

Finally, the natural beauty of “true species” native plants and the ways they interact and support the rest of the native food web is just plain miraculous, requiring no human intervention.

“Gardening in the Shade,” a presentation by Monica Buckley and Charlotte Adelman

“Gardening in the Shade,” 

A presentation by Monica Buckley and Charlotte Adelman

Sunday, June 10, 2-3PM

Emily Oaks Nature Center

4650 Brummel Street, Skokie

Red Stem Native Landscapes owner and native plant book author Charlotte Adelman will be presenting their newly revised “Gardening in the Shade: transform shady areas into beautiful bird and butterfly habitats,” a free event. 

Shady yards present significant challenges, but with the right native plants, they become lovely sanctuaries for people, birds, and butterflies. Charlotte Adelman and Monica Buckley share why we should – and how we can – transform our shady and wooded yards into beautiful and sustainable wildlife habitats.

Charlotte Adelman is the co-author of The Midwestern Native Garden and it’s companion book,  Midwestern Native Shrubs and Trees: Gardening Alternatives to Nonnative Species, her newest publication. As part of its Plants for Birds campaign, Audubon Great Lakes urrges  Midwesterners to secure a copy of Midwestern Native Shrubs and Trees and put its concepts into practice. Charlotte’s books will be available at the presentation, where she is donating the proceeds to Emily Oaks Nature Center. 

Monica Buckley is owner of Red Stem Native Landscapes Inc., a company located in north Chicago that designs, installs, and cares for native plant gardens and landscapes. 

Want to See Red? Grow Royal Catchfly


Royal Catchfly is one of few native prairie plants whose flowers are a true red. The single stalks branch only at the top, where the spray of showy scarlet blooms appears in mid to late summer. Only a few birds and insects are able to see the color red, so this plant requires an elite group of pollinators who can respond to that wavelength: ruby-throated hummingbirds and larger butterflies, such as the Tiger Swallowtail. In addition, the configuration of the flower­—a long, tubular base topped by a starlike arrangement of five petals—requires its visitors to have a long proboscis, or beak, for effective pollination. The plant stem and the tubular part of the Royal Catchfly flower are studded with long, sticky hairs that trap climbing insects, perhaps to keep them from dining on plant parts.

While native to Illinois, Royal Catchfly is considered an endangered plant there and is found in only a few areas: near Chicago and East St. Louis and in some southeastern counties. Its native habitats are black soil prairies, upland forest clearings, savannas, and open areas along roadsides and railroad rights of way. In the garden, Royal Catchfly prefers full or partial sun and moist soil. It tolerates dry conditions but not shade. Plants may take a few years to reach their full height of 2 to 4 feet and to bloom at their maximum potential.

Another common name for Royal Catchfly is Prairie Fire, a reference to its bright red flowers. In fact, it has a relationship to real prairie fires: Its seeds germinate well in fire-scorched soil. There are no reported medicinal or folklore uses for this plant. Enjoy it for its own beauty and elegance and that of its pollinators. 

Scientific Names

Royal Catchfly: Silene regia

Tiger Swallowtail: Papilio glaucus

Ruby-throated Hummingbird: Archilochus colubris

Both photos courtesy of the Prairie Moon Nursery.