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Dig In: Understanding Native Species vs. Native Cultivars

At American Meadows, we offer a broad range of native plants, and we're always working to expand our selection. Native plants are essential when it comes to supporting birds, beneficial insects, and wildlife. So what's the difference between wild native species, or indigenous species, when compared to a native hybrid, or native cultivar? Read on to learn more. 

Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) is a native or indiginous species of Bee Balm.Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) is a native or indiginous species of Bee Balm.
Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) is a native or indiginous species of Bee Balm.
'Balmy™ Purple' Bee Balm is a native cultivar, developed for compact form and powdery mildew disease resistance.'Balmy™ Purple' Bee Balm is a native cultivar, developed for compact form and powdery mildew disease resistance.
'Balmy™ Purple' Bee Balm is a native cultivar, developed for compact form and powdery mildew disease resistance.

Native or Indigenous Species

  • Native species respond to the web of life, and they are part of the evolving landscape. They're a part of Mother Nature's continual process that has been going on for eons, evolving with the shifting climate, soils, microorganisms, pollinators, birds, and other organisms (like people).
  • In the wild, these factors influence the shape and forms that exist today, and how those forms will survive (or not) in the future.
  • As a result, Native species are wild and genetically robust, with variation from plant to plant, showing mutations and latent genes that may be expressed in different growing conditions.

Native Cultivars or Native Hybrids

  • Cultivars of native plants are sometimes referred to as 'nativars'. A native cultivar could be selected in one of two ways.
  • A native hybrid could be a hybrid of two related species. Or, it could be a selection from the wild stock, for instance, a selection of a naturally occurring variation that the collecting botanist or gardener thought was valuable. For instance, it may have a unique color or form, which is then propagated by cuttings to literally clone the genetics of that particular variation. In this instance, you'll see less diversity in the mutations and different expressions that you may see in a native species. 
  • Nativars share some traits with their wild source species, but they are sometimes missing a big component of what makes them work for non-human elements of the natural world. For example, in many cases, cultivars are sterile, and will not make seeds. That can reduce their value in the wider ecosystem, for instance, if they lack food for birds to eat, etc.
  • One easy way to identify a native cultivar is by its name. If it has a cultivar name, and/or if its name has a trademark (TM) or registered symbol (®), those are indicators that the plant is a hybrid or cultivar. For instance, 'Balmy™ Purple' Bee Balm has a trademarked cultivar name.

When it comes to the impact on pollinators and wildlife, is there a difference between the benefit of native cultivars and native hybrids? The answer is, sometimes, and it depends on the plant. While we know and love a lot of fun and beautiful native cultivars, it's also a good idea to include wild species in your garden or landscape design, to bolster the ecosystem benefits of your planting.

For in-depth answers on the differences between wild native species and native cultivars, dig in to research by Annie S. White, PhD: Do leaf-eating insects eat nativars? and Professor Doug Tallamy: Do leaf-eating insects eat nativars?

Learn More: 5 Reasons Why Every Garden Needs Native Plants

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