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  • Susan Russell

What Is a Cultivar?

By Master Gardener, Lyn Chimera:

This is the time of year we dream of plant shopping. If you want to help/support Nature, look for Native Species. So much has been written about gardening to help nature and pollinators that many more people are looking to add native plants to their garden. There are natives, cultivars and nativars available. The following are some clarifications of the terminology you will encounter to help make wise decisions.

A native plant is basically one that has grown in a region since before European settlement. The popularity of natives has led growers to develop varieties of natives with different characteristics like height, color or disease resistance. These are often referred to as “nativars” which simply means a cultivar of a native.

A cultivar is a plant that has been specially bred to emphasize desirable characteristics. Cultivars are almost always clones (scientifically reproduced, not by seed), sometimes of a naturally occurring variety of a plant and sometimes of a hybridized or selectively bred specimen. Humans have been selectively breeding plants forever. Corn was selectively developed from a grass plant over a very long time way before science and technology was involved.

Many natives have common names, for example Echinacea is often referred to as cone flower. The native cone flower is Echinacea purpura. The first word, Echinacea is the genus. The species name is purpura and is usually in italics. If you see an extra name after the first two, usually in quotation marks and in English, like Echinacea purpura, “Cheyenne Spirit” that means it’s a cultivar/nativar.

Unfortunately, it’s much harder to find the true species in garden centers. Growers use tissue culture to reproduce the plants, so they are all genetically the same plant. If a cultivar does make seed, it may not grow true from that seed.

From the perspective of helping pollinators and nature the straight species is preferred to cultivars/nativars for many reasons. The biggest one is often the cultivars are sterile. That means they don’t make pollen, nectar or seeds and therefore serve only ornamental purposes. Not all cultivars are sterile. The further they have been developed from the species. The less value they have for nature.

Bottom line, if you want to support nature look for native species. Read those plant tags. If the nursery only has cultivars/nativars encourage them to offer the species. When enough people ask the nurseries will respond. Luckily there are many more independent nurseries selling true natives. Just look them up online. Happy planting!

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