As research increasingly shows, native plants are key to creating a wildlife-friendly garden. By definition, a native plant (or “straight species”) occurs naturally in a given location or region. A nativar is sometimes a natural variant that has been found in the wild and brought into cultivation, but often it has been developed by a plant breeder and would never be found in nature. In the words of Doug Tallamy, a University of Delaware entomologist and author of Bringing Nature Home, the proliferation of nativars demonstrates the extent to which the nursery trade “is still stuck on the idea of plants as enhanced decoration” rather than as essential to wildlife.
Lovely Name, Less Nutritious?
One clue that a plant is a nativar is a fancy, marketing-driven moniker like Razzmatazz (above) or Pink Double Delight, two double-flower variations on the native purple coneflower in which the flower’s brownish-orange central cone has been transformed into flashy pink pompoms. Botanical oddities like these may be highly regarded by the nursery industry, but it’s difficult, if not impossible, for bees and butterflies to gather pollen and nectar from double flowers. Such enhanced blooms can also be sterile and therefore unable to produce seeds—bad news for the goldfinches and other birds that relish these nutritious treats.
While radically tampering with a species’ flower structure often comes at the expense of wildlife, other popular nativar traits may be harmless or even beneficial. But how can gardeners interested in nurturing wildlife distinguish the good from the bad?
To help answer that question, Tallamy and colleagues at the University of Delaware have teamed up with researchers at the Mt. Cuba Center, a Delaware botanic garden specializing in native plants. As part of the project, Tallamy and graduate student Emily Baisden have been studying cultivated varieties of native trees and shrubs to learn how different traits affect the plants’ palatability to caterpillars
“It is a bad idea to load the landscape with plants that have no genetic variability,” says Tallamy. “I’m not a hardliner on this issue, but gardeners ought to have access to straight species. We have to convince the nursery industry that native plants are about more than just looks.”
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